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Tracy Alloway, PhD and Ross Alloway, PhD Headshot

When Working Memory Fumbles: Did Peyton Manning Make Cognitive Errors?

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The story of Super Bowl XLVIII is as much about Peyton Manning's possible cognitive failure as it is about the Seahawk's victory. Manning is a great player with a Super Bowl win and five MVPs, a league record. But he blew it. All his elite training, the ages spent watching videos of his opponents. All was for naught. How could so great a quarterback flop so spectacularly? Mocking memes are sprouting up and terrabytes of text are now being flung about the web trying to account for this uncharacteristic performance. We'd like to consider the possible role of working memory in the calamity.

Working memory is our ability to process information. We use it to ace the unexpected interview question, to improvise when we leave the notes to our dinner speech at home, and to play in the Super Bowl (well, a few of us, anyway).

When working memory is working well, the sky is the limit.

But working memory also has two crucial limitations: time and space.

Time: Working memory needs a certain amount of time to process information; it is conscious, and not always automatic. You often need to have enough time to think about what you are doing.

Space: You can only think about so many things, or process so much information before all the balls you are juggling are dropped.

Manning's interception turnover in the first quarter is a perfect example of how a lack of time to process the information on the field -- like where the open players are, and where the defense is -- can result in a processing error. Rushed by a flock of Seahawks, Manning was unable to find an open player in time, and he was cornered. If his working memory was in charge, he may have taken the sack or thrown the ball out of bounds and risked a penalty. Anything other than give the team possession. We speculate that his working memory shut down because it had too little time to weigh the options and make the right choice. So he did the only thing he didn't have to think about: he threw the ball. Seahawk Kam Chancellor was right there to capitalize on this cognitive error with an easy interception. Throughout the game, the Seahawks shut down Manning's working memory, and its ability to process the information on the field, with their savagely fast defense.

But why couldn't Manning innovate and adapt? Why did he freeze up? Manning may have himself to blame. The consummate over-preparer may have had too much on his mind. Manning is known as a "smart" quarterback. You've probably seen the picture of Manning reviewing a game on his iPad and soaking his foot at the same time, and you've probably heard the stories about how Manning annoys his teammates with constant quizzing to make sure they know the right things, as if knowing is the same thing as doing.

In his pursuit of perfection, did Manning absorb too much information? Quite possibly. Ordinarily, this isn't a problem for Manning, and is in fact a strength. Knowledge is (usually) power, and throughout the season Manning's mastery on the field was in part an intellectual mastery. He knew what each team was capable of, and he adapted his tactics to accommodate this knowledge, often on the spot; his working memory helped him to out-think his opponents.

But even Manning's considerable working memory may not have had enough space to handle all the information with which it was faced last night. Every game doubtless brings its pressures, but the psychological stress brought to bear on Manning -- it was the Super Bowl after all, and likely his last -- could easily have overwhelmed his working memory, and crowded out much of the available space to process plays and adapt to the Seahawk defense.

Stress is a nagging form of information that can shout louder and take precedence over all other information. People are often able to perform under stress when their working memory is able to master it. But working memory can struggle to both manage stress and to process other information as well. In a Super Bowl game, if you have to think everything through in order to perform, the result can be 43-8.

Written by Ross Alloway and Tracy Alloway