Study: Stress Affects Learning

By: Jenna Savage

In the past, we reported about how a reasonable amount of anxiety can help people to perform their best. When anxiety is used as a motivating factor, it can encourage individuals to be punctual and to work hard. In fact, being completely devoid of anxiety can influence individuals to work with less effort than their anxious counterparts. Recently, a study conducted by psychologists Dr. Lars Schwabe and Dr. Oliver Wolf and published in the Journal of Neuroscience has shown that stress, too, can impact individuals — but not in a positive way. Rather, stress affects how hard the brains work and determines the brain’s learning strategies, according to PsychCentral.

The study consisted of 59 participants, half of whom were directed to put their hands in cold water for three minutes, which in turn caused them stress. The other group put their hands in warm water, which was less stressful of an experience. Then the psychologists had them perform an activity known as “weather prediction,” during which the participants analyzed different playing cards with symbols to determine the combinations that would lead to rain or sunshine.

While they engaged in the activity, the researchers monitored brain activity with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). They were able to track which brain areas were active while the participants made their predictions, and found that the way people learned how to make their predictions varied based on whether or not they were stressed.

In the end, non-stressed individuals were discovered to rely on the hippocampus region of their brains, which activates long-term memory. Meanwhile, stressed individuals relied on the striatum area of their brain — an important area for learning that takes place on an unconscious level. Whereas unstressed individuals looked at individual symbols and employed simple learning methods, stressed individuals were more complex, instead focusing on the combination of symbols and an unconscious, “gut” learning process. In addition, the stressed participants could not verbalize their learning strategies, due to the unconscious and complex nature of the processes.

These results indicate that stress disrupts the hippocampus from performing and keeps conscious learning from taking place. However, the study also showed that the brain adapts by utilizing other methods of learning — in particular, activation of the striatum — to save the learning process. Stressed brains worked harder, but they did manage to save learning despite the stress.

Such results indicate that stress affects the way people learn. And while it may not completely hinder the learning of a task, it certainly doesn’t make the process easy for the study participants. Relaxation techniques are therefore important — they help individuals calm down and clear their minds so that the hippocampus can once again take over the learning process.

In the event that you find yourself stressed while you are trying to study or learn a task, give yourself a few minutes to take some deep breaths, do something you enjoy, or take a break in some other way. That way you save yourself — and your brain — from extra effort.