Stress and Memory

Posted by adrionna on Nov 14, 2012 in Information Station

Finals week has begun! I’m studying for my Biology of Emotion class now, so it’s great that I find it absolutely fascinating. There are so many concepts we learn about (fear, love, personality) that are very applicable to daily life. The professor makes difficult ideas accessible and her extra effort motivates me to try and really learn — and remember — what she thinks is most important for us to know. Despite my fascination with the subject, the fact that the exam is tomorrow stresses me out a little. I will need to remember a lot of information. What does that mean about how I will perform on the exam? Doesn’t this situation directly connect to what I learned about stress and memory in class? One of the points on the study guide asks “Know in detail how stress affects memory, aiding it on some occasions and disrupting it in others?” To help put this stuff in my long-term memory, I need to rehearse it. What better way to talk about it than on a prettynerd blog? Seems like a match made in heaven.

Here’s the deal: stress can either help me remember my biology of emotion information, or it can absolutely sabotage my exam.

Timing is everything:

  • I have a better chance of recalling information if I stressed earlier in the week.
  • If I just started stressing out now, the night before the test (“late and chronic stress”), the stress will inhibit memory.

Amount of stress:

  • Mild, acute stress enhances memory. [Fun fact: Yerkes-Dodson Law states that moderate arousal will aid memory in accomplishing difficult tasks (like taking an exam or parallel parking). For simple tasks (like picking up an apple from the ground or ducking from a projectile coming towards you), increased arousal helps memory.]
  • Severe, chronic stress disrupts memory. It disrupts explicit memory (your conscious, intentional recollection of previous experiences and information) and long-term potentiation (the process of strengthening neurons, and thus connections). It literally degenerates your dendrites (“dendritic atrophy”), which help connect your neural synapses to each other. Furthermore, chronic or high stress can be toxic to neurons located in your hippocampus (which is responsible for learning in memory) so then you have a smaller hippocampus. This loss of neurons results in poor memory. Not a pretty picture of chronic stress, I’d say.

So there you have it, folks: stress early and not too much; moderate arousal is a-okay for difficult tasks. Increased arousal is better for simpler tasks, but chronic stress starts deteriorating your brain and limits what you’ll be able to learn in the future (because of a smaller hippocampus).
Thanks for helping me study!


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