Sensory Learning Ability Compromised Under Stress

Man under stress with head in handsThe senses may not be able to learn under stress, according to a study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. The study looked at the sense of touch while under the influence of the stress hormone cortisol.

Poor Sensory Performance Under Stress

Researchers assessed tactile learning in 30 participants, half of whom received a dose of cortisol. The hormone is associated with stress responses, and so its administration mimicked the effects of stress on the brain and body. The other group received a placebo, and neither the participants nor the observers knew which participants were in the control group.

Participants completed a two-point discrimination threshold test. The test assesses how close two points can be—while these two points are touching the participant’s skin at the same time—before participants fail to distinguish them as separate points. For example, while a participant’s eyes are closed, a researcher will use an instrument with two prongs to touch the participant’s skin. The researcher alternates between touching the participant with one or two points, asking the participant to try to discern between one or two points of touch. The closer the two points are to each other while the participant is still feeling two distinct points of sensation, the better their sense of touch.

To encourage sensory learning, researchers in this study used passive finger stimulation, which previous studies have linked to increased finger sensitivity and accuracy. The placebo group experienced a 15% improvement in tactile accuracy. The group that received cortisol saw almost no improvements. This suggests stress can inhibit sensory learning.

How Stress Affects Learning

Other studies have also demonstrated stress can undermine learning. For example, research suggests cortisol can reduce the brain’s ability to strengthen synaptic connections, impeding the ability to learn.

One study found children struggle to learn in stressful school environments. Another recent study linked competitive stress to underperformance in male athletes. The effects of stress on learning may be due to the activity of cortisol in the brain’s hippocampus and amygdala. Cortisol binds to receptors in these regions, which play key roles in learning and memory.

A 2013 study assessed how changing cortisol levels affected learning. Researchers measured cortisol levels of more than 1,200 people who completed a visual memory test, gathering data before a memory was formed, as it formed, and as participants attempted to recall the memory.

Participants with decreases in cortisol levels when they attempted to retrieve a memory were more likely to recall the memory. This result held regardless of the emotional effects of the pictures used in the memory test.

References:

  1. Dinse, H. R., Kattenstroth, J., Lenz, M., Tegenthoff, M., & Wolf, O. (2017). The stress hormone cortisol blocks perceptual learning in humans. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 77, 63-67. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2016.12.002
  2. Munoz, L. M. (2013, July 24). Stress hormone hinders memory recall. Retrieved from https://www.cogneurosociety.org/cortisol_memory/
  3. Our senses can’t learn under stress. (2017, January 11). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170111093428.htm

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  • Melisa

    Melisa

    January 23rd, 2017 at 11:27 AM

    This is quite believable to me. I know how I really struggle to retain any information when I am in a stressed mood so it doesn’t surprise me at all to learn that I am not alone in that.

  • Guy

    Guy

    January 23rd, 2017 at 2:34 PM

    We don’t really understand the depth to which having a great deal of stress in our lives can impact us. It can be so detrimental to our health and yet we all seem to live from one stressful event to the next.
    I am not sure how we all got into this cycle that more is more, but with stress it should be the opposite. The less stress you have then the better overall that your life will be but I don’t think that as a whole our society is very conducive to encouraging a stress free lifestyle.

  • Greg

    Greg

    January 24th, 2017 at 11:35 AM

    So like not book learning kind of stuff?

  • Maisy

    Maisy

    January 24th, 2017 at 4:13 PM

    Seriously I get it, I confess that there have been times in my life when I have been under so much pressure and stress that I didn’t even feel like I could breathe, much less take in something new! I get it how overwhelming this feeling can be, and how for lack of a better word it can at times leave you feeling incapacitated.

  • Yeardley

    Yeardley

    January 25th, 2017 at 2:24 PM

    Ok maybe I am weird but the more stressed out I am the better performance I tend to give- strange huh?
    It’s like the more pressure for me the better.

  • michael

    michael

    January 26th, 2017 at 1:54 PM

    that stress response can be a nasty little booger can’t it?

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