It’s nearly finals week at college campuses across the globe, and college students everywhere are crying out for mercy! School can be extremely stressful, but is that stress boosting out ability to remember things? Is stress a necessary part of learning?
Scientists from the University of Oklahoma took this to question to the lab. They had the question, “does cortisol enhance memory performance?” The study participants were made of 24 women and 24 women that had an average age of 27. First, half took a placebo pill and half took a cortisol (stress) pill. Then they were exposed to a mix of 60 emotionally triggering and neutral images, each for 12 seconds. Since emotional triggers are subjective, participants also ranked the images on a scale of 0-9 of emotionally provoking they were. Cortisol levels in saliva were measured before drug administration, 50 minutes after, and after the photos were presented. At the time, participants did not know that they would be later tested on recall and recognition of the images a week later. Results indicated that the cortisol group remembered significantly (P<0.00001) more pictures than the placebo group. Additionally, in all groups (regardless of cortisol blood levels) the more stressful images were more memorable. Subjects had a higher recall and recognition rate of all the images that they considered to be emotionally arousing.
This suggests that stress levels in the body and stressful stimuli do play a role in our ability to remember. Our desire as students to succeed academically gives students anxiety and stress surrounding their performance. But maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe that stress is helping us more than we know. No conclusions can be drawn exclusively from this study, but one thing is for certain- do whatever you can to make those pneumonic devices as memorable and shocking as possible!