This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 14 table of contents.

Cognitive Effects of Stress

The excitation caused by stress makes complex and subtle thought processes more difficult. There is too much noise in the nervous system. This leads to phenomena such as "freezing" (being unable to think straight or remember important information) on an exam. Under stress, a person becomes more reactive and impulsive and more likely to do something that looks maladaptive (harmful, not constructive) to others. A psychologist gave the example of a friend who, after being fired, spent 10 hours a day playing pinball for two weeks.

What are negative effects of stress?
What activities are performed well under stress?

One type of cognitive and motor activity can be performed well under stress: this is the type of activity psychologists call overlearned. Overlearned activities are things you have repeated so many times you could probably do them in your sleep. Most academic material is not least, not until you are a teacher and you have given the same lecture many times. The more superficially something is learned, the more likely it is to become unavailable to your memory in an emergency.

Why is it important to keep emergency procedures simple?

The tendency of people to perform simple activities better than complex activities, under stress, underlines the importance of keeping emergency procedures simple. In an emergency, people are under unusual degrees of stress. If they have to remember a complex procedure, they may fail entirely. The 911 system for getting emergency help over the phone, used in American cities, works well because people can remember to dial 911 even if they are panic-stricken. Stories of people freezing at the telephone because they cannot find "eleven" on the dial are untrue (Brunvand, 1974).

How does mild stress benefit students?

As mentioned in Chapter 6 (Memory) and Chapter 9 (Motivation) mild stress is a different matter altogether. A small amount of adrenaline-perhaps the amount stimulated by a caffeine drink or an impending test-increases the brain's ability to form new memories. Mild stress also makes actions of all kinds more likely. An impending deadline may suddenly unleash a student's ability to write a term paper, after weeks of procrastination. Severe stress can immobilize people, but mild stress usually has an activating effect.

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