Stress creates a number of psychological and physiological changes in a person. When someone is under stress, his or her heart rate increases, blood pressure can rise, and the person may break out in a sweat. Psychologically, emotions may run high, and thinking may become fuzzy or extra sharp. For students, test taking presents a unique type of stress. Under such conditions, students must maintain cognitive composure, perform under a time restriction, and still accurately retrieve educationally relevant information. So just how does this type of stress affect recall? In an effort to examine this effect, Almut Hupbach of the Department of Psychology at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania recently led a study involving 37 men and 38 women.
On the first day of the study, participants were told to memorize a passage of scientific information. On the second day, they were given either a neutral or stressful stimulus and prompted to recall the information they had memorized. At this time, Hupbach measured their cortisol levels through saliva. On the third and final day of the study, participants were instructed to recall the information again, this time in the absence of any stress. The findings revealed that the stressful conditions raised the cortisol levels in the men, but also sharpened their accuracy. Specifically, the men in the stressful condition performed better on recall than those in the neutral condition. This occurred in the immediate recall test and on the delayed, day two, recall experiment. “This shows that moderate stress does not only have immediate effects on retrieval, but can improve retention after a delay,” Hupbach said.
Hupbach did not discover this same effect in the women. Although some of the women did have slightly increased levels of cortisol after they were exposed to the stressful condition, they did not have increases in recall as a result. This could be due in part to the birth control hormones that were present in some of the women, but how that affected stress was not directly tested in this study. When the participants were instructed to recall the information on the third day, the increased performance levels of the men had returned to normal. These findings suggest that under the right circumstances, mild stress can benefit a man’s ability to recall certain information.
Hupbach, Almut, and Rachel Fieman. Moderate stress enhances immediate and delayed retrieval of educationally relevant material in healthy young men. Behavioral Neuroscience 126.6 (2012): 819-25. Print.
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