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Can't remember anything? Maybe you're too stressed


People under stress use different brain regions and different strategies when learning from people who are not under stress. Non-stressed individuals use a deliberate learning strategy while stressed people rely on gut feeling . “These results demonstrate for the first time that stress has an influence on which of the different memory systems the brain turns on,” said Lars Schwabe, cognitive psychologist from the Ruhr-Universitat Bochum.

Two groups, two styles, one task

Fifty-nine volunteers joined the study. Half of the people immersed one hand into icy cold water for several minutes while being videoed. Hormone screenings revealed that the people were experiencing stress. The other half had to immerse their hands into warm water. Both groups then looked at playing cards with different symbols and learned to predict their patterns as they appeared in a sequence. People used different strategies in order to make their predictions. Brain activity was recorded using MRI technology.

No stress used long term memory

Both groups were successful figuring out the combinations. Non-stressed volunteers revealed that they focused on individual symbols and not the combination. It was a simple strategy they consciously pursued. The MRI data showed that they accessed a part of the brain in the medial temporal lobe called the hippocampus which is an area important for long term memory.

Stress used unconscious learning

Stressed people used a different strategy relying on combinations of symbols. It was subconsciously done and they could not articulate what strategy they used. This was a more complex strategy. The part of the brain that they used was the striatum in the midbrain, an area associated with unconscious learning.

Schwabe concluded,

“Stress interferes with conscious, purposeful learning, which is dependent upon the hippocampus. So that makes the brain use other resources. In the case of stress, the striatum controls behavior – which saves the learning achievement.”

Source: MedicalNewsToday, Ruhr-University Bochum

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