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The Surprising Link Between Stress and Memory

Consider the following video by TED Ed - Lessons Worth Sharing that investigates the complex relationship between stress and memory.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Memories of facts you read, hear or study are formed through a process with three key steps (Cox, 2018):

Acquisition:

  • This is when your brain receives a new piece of information. Each sensory experience activates a unique set of brain areas.

Consolidation

  • After each of the unique set of brain areas have been activated these sensory experiences have to be consolidated by the hippocampus (influenced by the amygdala).

Retrieval

  • Now the memory has been encoded, you will be able to remember and retrieve memories at a later date.

Cox explains that in the first two stages, acquisition and consolidation, moderate stress can be helpful. Stress triggers the brain to release hormones called corticosteroids. This activates a process of threat detection and response in the amygdala which then prompts the hippocampus to consolidate the memory.
However, according to Cox, while some stress can be helpful, extreme or chronic long-term stress can have the opposite impact. It can damage the hippocampus and reduce your ability to develop new memories.

How does stress impact your ability to recall facts?

While stress has some positive effects on short-term memory, it doesn’t help us to remember facts. Our ability to recall facts relies on the prefrontal cortex, but stress stimulates the amygdala which then lessens the activity of the prefrontal cortex, therefore making it more difficult to recall facts.

Has your mind ever gone blank during a test? Well, after your mind goes blank, your level of stress increases and impacts your ability to retrieve the information. So, next time you are desperately trying to remember a fact, Cox suggests taking a deep breath and trying to return to a state of calmness.

References

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This article is from the free online course:

Learning and Memory: Understandings from Educational Neuroscience

Central Queensland University