Why does nothing stick when you’re stressed out

brain learning under stressHave you ever noticed how incredibly difficult it is to learn anything, when you’re REALLY STRESSED ?

Under normal circumstances – memorizing a list of 10 items would be a sinch, a 10 – 15 minute session would have the list locked in.

But when you know it is IN the test, which is less than an hour or so from now, list learning is a nightmare. Nothing, I mean nothing will get it to stick.

This week’s Neurotechnology Tip – don’t leave it till the last minute. Aaaaah, I know, I know…. you don’t end up cramming desperately, deliberately. Unfortunately, desperate cramming is more-often than not “defective” learning, because a stressed brain, just doesn’t learn in the same way as a non-stressed brain.

Learning for the stressed brain

It is quite literately hit and miss. The item that needs to be remembered is thrown willy nilly into the brain. It does land, the trouble is, it isn’t always clear exactly where. The memory definitely takes the scenic route in.

This is what a research team from Ruhr University in Germany discovered, when they tested a few stressed out brains, while peering at them under a brain scanning machine, known as a MRI.

Stressing up with a little ice

The team created a little stressed learning, by requiring participants in the study, to dip their hands into a bucket of ice-cold water, for three minutes.

NOTE : This does produce stress – physiological at least, the three minutes of physiological stress, transitions into psychological stress, because continuing to keep your hand on ice, is STRESSFUL. If you don’t believe me, feel free to try it at home.

The other half of the participants also stuck their hand in a bucket, but the bucket had luke warm water in it. So, although they also had a wet hand, their hand/brain was not in any REAL distress.

Predicting the weather

Both groups of participants had to do a little thinking/learning.

They were issued with playing cards, with different weather conditions symbolized on them. Each card combination predicted whether the weather would be good or bad. Participants had to interpret the symbols, to predict the weather.

Predicting the weather accomplished

Luckily this was a simulation, so the weather always obeyed the prediction. Both the stressed brains and the non-stressed brains, managed to learn to “predict the weather”.

But how they did it…… was different.

Chaos v calm

Non-stressed brains approached the task very methodically. They focused on each symbol, not on combinations. Their learning activated the medial temporal lobe, in the hippocampus – the bit of the brain associated with long-term memory.

The stressed brains made the learning very complicated. They looked at combinations, not individual symbols, to predict the weather and the scattered approach showed up in the brain scans. Instead of accessing the hippocampus (the seat of long-term learning), they activated the striatum. Learning in the stressed brain was much harder worker.

Don’t try learn in the midst of a storm

You can predict the weather conditions during a storm ….. they are going to be tumultuous. Landing the facts in the long term memory, is a lot harder during a storm.

So this week’s Neurotechnology Tip – try not to leave your learning until the last minute.

Stress modulates the engagement of multiple memory systems in classification learning. Journal of Neuroscience (2012) 32(32):11042-11049.  L. Schwabe, O. Wolf.

To wire up your brain a little each week ………………..

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Further reading

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Exam remembering takes practice under pressure Too much stress can cause a brain freeze How to avoid choking in an exam

The 7 Big Spoons™…. are master switches that turn health on.

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Balance Eicosanoids Rein in insulin Dial down stress Sleep ! Increase Vit D Culivate microflora Think champion

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Did you learn something new or do you have a different perspective ? I’d love to hear from you so post me a comment below

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2 Trackbacks

  1. By Dr Sandy Evans » 7 Big Spoons for 10 Sept – 14 Sept on September 14, 2012 at 11:37 am

    [...] Why does nothing stick when you’re stressed out [...]

  2. By » Blog Archive » Round up 10 Sept – 14 Sept on September 14, 2012 at 11:34 am

    [...] Why does nothing stick when you’re stressed out [...]

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