How the brain learns successfully, even under stress
Posted by Dean Holden at August 6th, 2013
By Carolyn Gregoire, 31 July 2013
Although stress can negatively affect cognitive functioning in a number of ways, our brains are actually pretty adaptable when it comes to learning under stress. In a new study, German researchers have pinpointed how certain receptors in the brain can help us move from conscious and to unconscious learning processes when we’re under stress.
The Ruhr-Universität Bochum study shows that when we have to acquire new knowledge under stress, the brain generally employs unconscious rather than conscious learning processes. The brain’s switch to these unconscious processes is spurred to action by proteins called mineralocorticoid receptors, activated by the adrenal gland in response to the release of stress hormones.
For the study, published recently in the journal Biological Psychiatry, 40 study participants were given a drug to block the mineralocorticoid receptors, and 40 study participants were given a placebo. Twenty participants from each group were put under stress and then all subjects were given a learning test called the “weather prediction task,” which involved showing the participants playing cards with different symbols on them. The participants then had to figure out which combinations of symbols on the cards indicated rain or sunshine. While the participants were taking this test, they also were undergoing brain imaging with MRI.
Researchers wanted to see what exactly influenced the study participants to use conscious reasoning (thinking about what could make sense for finding the correction combination of symbols on the cards) or unconscious reasoning (going by one’s gut feeling). In previous studies, researchers had demonstrated that the brain tends to prefer unconscious learning preferences when under stress.
In the new study, they found that unconscious learning can only take place when mineralocorticoid receptors are functioning properly. That’s because they found that the study participants who took the receptor-blocking drug switched over to unconscious reasoning less frequently — in other words, it had a negative impact on learning efficiency.
Still, the brain functions optimally when it’s not under stress. Previous research has shown stress to have a significant effect on cognitive functioning — chronic stress has been linked with poor memory, decreased focus, and trouble learning. But even short-term stress can impair communication of brain cells in regions associated with learning and memory.
To minimize stress and super-charge your brain power, try incorporating mindfulness into your everyday life. The practice of cultivating mindful awareness has been associated with lower stress levels. Simply paying attention to the way a stressful situation affects your mind and body can keep anxiety levels in check, according to Danny Penman, author of Mindfulness: Finding Peace In A Frantic World.
“When you get distracted and stressed, you might start tensing up in your stomach, neck or shoulders,” Penman told the Huffington Post in a recent interview. “The simple act of observing the effects of stress and worry on the body causes our tension to run into the sand.”