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Updated: Aug 22

What role does the prefrontal cortex play in trying to score a penalty amid 60,000 supporters?


Imagine being England manager, Gareth Southgate, in the recent European Championship 2021 final against Italy. With just a few minutes of extra time left, the tie looks like it will go to penalties and, whilst the game is still being played, the manager makes a substitution, putting on two players whom he hopes will score in the upcoming shootout. The implications of getting the decision right means winning or losing a major sporting tournament. Meanwhile, the noise of sixty thousand supporters is deafening.

Now imagine being one of the players who eventually walks up to take a penalty. They probably have in their mind how they plan to take the kick. Do they aim the ball low or high? Do they place it to the goalkeeper’s right or left, or even straight down the middle? What kind of run up do they take? They are aware that all eyes are on them. For the Italian players, it is arguably worse: they are walking towards twenty thousand England fans, seated behind the goal, all trying to put them off.

In order to manage such situations, where a series of decisions have to be made under extreme pressure, one brain area that is especially active is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is located in a region of the frontal lobe of the brain (from where the motor cortex ends to rostral or towards the nose). In simple terms the prefrontal cortex’s function is to control decision-making, sometimes referred to as executive decisions. These are decisions with a degree of importance (like the kind a company executive has to make). Such decisions include social behaviour: what to say, what not to say, being polite and not using foul language.

One of the first studies of the frontal lobe and its functions occurred because of an accident. In 1848, Phineaus Gage, a Massachusetts railroad worker, was preparing explosives to blast away rock when a spark ignited the dynamite and sent an iron bar through his cheek and out of his skull, damaging the frontal lobe. After surviving, Gage was described as being irritable and antisocial, very much unlike his former character. A Russian psychologist, Alexander Luria, found similar effects when he investigated headshots on Russian soldiers during the second world war. When the frontal lobe was damaged it impeded the surviving soldier’s ability to execute goal-directed behaviour. Early evidence suggested that the frontal lobe regulates the ‘social’ self, the part of us that can meet people in polite society and speak in turn. It also showed that the prefrontal cortex facilitates executing a goal (not a literal one necessarily), such as working out how to undo a knot or cooking a meal.

For England manager, Gareth Southgate, as he decides which players will take penalties, he will have a number of factors in his mind. Which players have scored in training? Which players respond under pressure? Who is having a good game? The fact that younger players tend to be more successful in penalty competitions (perhaps because younger players are less likely to have missed before). When he eventually makes a decision, in deciding that one player will be the first penalty taker it effectively means that ten others cannot. Ten names are inhibited, as the one penalty taker gets the job.

At this point Southgate’s prefrontal cortex, amongst other brain areas, will be particularly active. He has a problem to solve, a decision to make, with bitesize details to consider one at a time. The prefrontal cortex is ‘active’ in the sense that there is a high volume of neurons having action potentials. When many action potentials occur the changing electrical activity of a cell gives way to the exchange of a chemical messenger or neurotransmitter. Such increases in activity are detectable using brain measuring techniques such as event-related potentials (electrical activity) and functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI (blood flow).


In terms of cognition, the prefrontal cortex plays an important role in making complex decisions. There is some evidence that, when individuals are making such decisions, there is greater neuronal activity in the prefrontal cortex. Goldman-Rakic, for instance, noted that when monkeys undertake tasks in which they must delay a response, whilst using short term memory, their (lateral) prefrontal neurons are more active. As the monkey ‘decides’ what action to take, its prefrontal area must continue to hold information (Le Doux, 1998, p.274). Whilst monkeys are clearly not the same as humans entirely, their capacity to hold information in short term memory, such as weighing up what to do, is similar to humans. Southgate’s decision over the penalty takers is a delayed response: he waits until the right time, keeping all information in mind, before deciding which player to choose.

If the role of the prefrontal cortex can be summed up in a word, then perhaps it should be ‘inhibition’. Its function is to inhibit incorrect, or inappropriate, or irrelevant information, in order to hone in on the best decision. Making even a trivial choice takes incredible concentration, but it’s even harder when surrounded by sixty thousand screaming supporters. In a penalty shoot out, the point at which the penalty taker walks from the half way line to the penalty spot requires, obviously, movement. Where does that movement originate in the brain? A deeper region known as the basal ganglia is responsible for releasing dopamine when an individual is motivated enough to walk, run, pick things up, speak and so on. It projects neural connections to the prefrontal cortex which secrete an excitatory neurotransmitter called dopamine.

Excitatory neurotransmitters make neurons more likely to have an action potential. Excitatory signals, starting in the basal ganglia, are important in informing the rest of the body to move. At the same time, too much excitation would be a problem, because there could be too much movement and the body might not move as planned. Therefore, inhibitory signals are also needed. Serotonin and GABA, for instance, suppress neuronal activity, preventing action potentials. Imagine the penalty-taker thinking to himself that he is going to take a staggered run up, make it look like he is going to put the ball to the goalkeeper’s left, before passing it to the goalkeeper’s right. There is quite a bit of information to store. Look towards the keeper’s left, but don’t kick the ball that way. Keep the body straight to avoid giving away clues. Focus on the plan and when it went well in training. Shut out the boos and jeers of the crowd. Inhibitory signals in the brain are essential in order for the body to move as desired.


The prefrontal cortex also has an interactive relationship with a deeper structure in the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala activates when an emotional stimuli is detected. An opposing player may try to put off a penalty taker by questioning his ability. The amygdala connects to the prefrontal cortex via the thalamus. If there is a threat, then the prefrontal cortex must make a decision about what to do. Clearly, if professional sports players were easily distracted they probably would not be professional sports players. Their prefrontal cortex inhibits unhelpful behaviours: do not get emotional, stay on task, concentrate on your game.

In contrast, individuals who are prone to committing violence have weaker prefrontal areas. Adrian Raine showed that, when undertaking a decision-making task murderers had lower prefrontal activation than controls. It turns out that murderers (who plead guilty through being insane) have lower activation in the prefrontal cortex. It seems that, without a functioning prefrontal area, individuals are less likely to inhibit aggressive behaviour. When Raine’s murderers claimed insanity as a reason for their crimes it suggests poor reasoning was a factor in them becoming more aggressive.

In a further study, Raine compared murderers from a deprived background with non deprived murderers. The non deprived murderers had much lower prefrontal activation than deprived ones. So not being deprived, coming from a good home, correlated with lower prefrontal activation. For reasons not to do with home life those individuals are disinhibited when it comes to making decisions. It takes planning to commit a premeditated murder, but to consider how your actions affect other people’s feelings means exercising conscience and it is one's conscience that inhibits criminal behaviour. See here for images from Raine’s study: the non deprived murderers, it seems, might have been born with prefrontal defects which rendered them with dysfunctional morality.


For someone suffering with schizophrenia, being asked to take a penalty for your country in a high stress situation would be especially difficult. When schizophrenics are put in a position where they must rely on their prefrontal cortex, to make decisions, they find it especially hard. One example in research is the Stroop test. A series of words are shown, and the participant must name the ink colour. This is easy when the word ‘red’ is written in red. But when the word ‘red’ is written in blue, the participant must answer ‘blue’, although it is natural to see the word ‘red’. To get this right, and quickly, is a test of inhibition: the instinctive answer must be inhibited to say the correct answer. According to Cohen and Servan-Schreiber (in Le Doux, 2002, p.183), individuals with prefrontal damage tend to do the Stroop test poorly and schizophrenics tend to be slower compared to controls. One neural correlate of schizophrenia is an underactive prefrontal cortex and lower levels of dopamine, which corresponds to poorer judgement. If a schizophrenic believes, for instance, that God is transmitting harmful messages to them, they are deciding something is truth when it might only be a thought which seems true.

In order to function as an adult in high pressure situations, an individual relies upon a ‘healthy’ prefrontal cortex, one that activates proportionately, with excitatory neurotransmitters balanced with inhibitory neurotransmitters. To an extent, childhood is important in making sure that the prefrontal cortex gets plenty of 'training'. When parents encourage children to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, eat with their mouths closed and keep opinions to themselves, the parent is really training the child to inhibit their behaviour. With their parents help, children must learn to make good decisions. When the England manager is interviewed after losing the Euro final, and blames himself for the defeat, this itself is a decision which takes into account the feelings of others. By taking responsibility the pressure is released from those who missed penalties. In order to think in this way, a healthy, functioning prefrontal cortex is essential.


Brainfacts.org hosts the interactive brain which is powered by the Wellcome Trust and developed by Matt Wimsatt and Jack Simpson

Joseph Le Doux (2002) The Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are is published by Penguin.

Joseph Le Doux (1998) The Emotional Brain is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Adrian Raine (2013) The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime is published by Pantheon Books

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