Stress Affects Memory, Problem Solving

Stress Helps Simple Fact Recall, Hurts Flexible Thinking

Oct. 25, 2004 -- It may come as no surprise that stress can take its toll on thinking. Under the gun, we're all vulnerable to less-than-optimal reasoning.

However, new research shows that stress actually helps when it comes to recalling simple memorized facts.

The finding is based on memory and thinking tests taken by 19 medical students and conducted by researchers including David Beversdorf, MD, of Ohio State University.

When the medical students were one or two days away from exams, Beversdorf and colleagues gave them three tests to see how they fared under pressure.

The tests were designed to highlight different kinds of thinking skills, including memory and problem solving.

Participants had an easier time recalling a list of memorized items, but they didn't do as well on tests that made them consider many possibilities to come up with an answer. Stress interfered with the students' ability to transfer what they have learned to different, even unique, situations or solve problems.

"There was a clear relationship between [mental skills] and stress levels," says Beversdorf in a news release. "The students didn't think flexibly right before their exam, typically a time of great stress."

Chemicals produced by the body under stress may have had an impact, but the study didn't measure levels of those chemicals.

Beversdorf presented the findings in San Diego at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. He plans to study pharmacological and other stress-reduction techniques in upcoming studies.

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SOURCES: Neuroscience 2004, San Diego, Oct. 23-27, 2004. News release, Ohio State University.
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