The Impact of Stress on Learning and Memory

This is a photograph I recently took during my travels in Maine. Its a very peaceful scene with my nephews paddling on a pond at sunset. As luck would have it, I captured in the foreground the concentric rings of tiny waves created where a fish jumped. You can also see lily pads and grass growing in the water. I wish every day were as beautiful and carefree as depicted in this photo. But they are not. Indeed, our lives are full of stress and I've begun to think about how it impacts our ability to learn and remember.

I think most of us are intrinsically aware that people under stress have a more difficult time learning and remembering things. At one point in our lives all of us has been "stressed out" about something and performance at school or work (or life in general) suffered. Personally, over the past year, I've had increasing difficulty expressing myself clearly and remembering the little things that once came so easily to me. This may be a function of age related memory loss (I hope not!!) or it may be related to a persisent level of stress or perhaps both. Why does stress impact learning and memory? This may be related to several factors. First, people who are under a lot of stress have a difficult time paying attention to the sensory inputs in the immediate surroundings - their minds are pre-occupied with other thoughts and are not focused on percieving, interpreting, and reflecting on new information in the environment. Second, stress hormones cause disturbances in our brain chemistry (don't ask me the details ... remember, I'm a primary care practitioner ... not a biochemist!) which appears to make accessing previously learned material more difficult. Just think back to a particularly stressful exam!

Stress is a self-percieved phenomena. A situation or environment that seems stressful to one person is an unnoticed annoyance (or perhaps even pleasureable) to someone else. A certain amount of stress can be very useful and, when its not excessive, it can enhance performance. People who are "challenged" to meet high expectations often meet them. Thus, "low balling" learners to make things easy or stress free isn't productive. I think the best analogy for this phenomena is the Starling curve (actually, its called the Frank-Starling curve ... but most of us seem to forget about Otto Frank who was Ernst Starling's partner!). In the Frank-Starling curve, cardiac output improves with increasing preload (left-ventricular end diastolic volume) and is dependent on stroke volume. In other words, if you push more into the heart (e.g. stress it) it will end up pumping out more (if the heart is healthy) ... at least to a point, and then it progressively goes into failure. The point at which the heart will begin to go into failure is variable from one individual to another. Individuals who already have some degree of cardiac dysfunction can accommodate much less pressure before they go into failure. That's why we give them drugs to reduce pre-load. And analogously, people who already have cognitive dysfunctions (e.g. learning disabilities, cognitive impairment due to age or disease, mental illness, or difficulty coping to a new life situation) can be pushed into "learning failure" more easily. As teachers, particularly as college professors who are trying to develop professionals who continue to perform well even under situations where there is significant stress and pressure, how much should we accommodate the needs of these individuals? How much should we reduce the pre-load? Certainly, the learning environment should not be purposely stressful. Further, students should be given encouragement and their confidence boosted (when appropriate) with positive affirmations about their ability to succeed. Any student who has a temporary stressor (i.e. death in family, moving, divorce) should be accommodated for awhile. But how about those who are always "stressed out." Perhaps we should be offering (or even requiring) these students to learn and regularly engage in a variety of stress management techniques. Food for thought.

You can find a wealth of information about the relationship between stress and learning at:

Early Childhood Performance and Parental Contributions

I've been listening (yes, listening) to the book "Freakonomics" by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner this past week in my car on the way to work. A fascinating look at social phenomena from an economist's point of view. Among many other things explored in the book, the authors examine the impact that parents have on the intellectual development of childen, particularly during the "most formative" years between birth and kindergarten. They use a massive data set - the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS)- collected over the past decade in a very large cohort of children in the US to determine what parental factors contribute to a child's success in school (at least in elementary school). The results are surprising in some ways because they refute some of the "conventional wisdom" regarding parental behaviors that are believed to increase a child's chances of success in school.

Eight factors that appear to matter (and were significantly correlated with performance):
1) The child's parents' educational attainment (positive correlation)
2) The child's parents' socioeconomic standing (positive correlation)
3) The child's mother was > 30 years old when she had her first child
4) Low birthweight (negative correlation)
5) The child's parents speak English in the home
6) The child is adopted (negative correlation)
7) The child's parents participate in the PTA
8) The child's parents have many books in the home

Eight factors that do not appear to matter (e.g. no correlation was found):
1) The child's family is intact (e.g. mom and dad are married and live in the same household)
2) The child's family recently moved to a better neighborhood
3) The child's mother did not work from the child's birth to kindergarten
4) The child participated in HeadStart
5) The child's parents regularly take the child to museums
6) The child's parents regularly spank the child
7) The child regularly watches TV
8) The child's parents read to the child nearly every day

The authors contend that these data indicate that who the parents "are" is more important than what the parents "do" in determining how well their child will do in school. This would suggest that our intellectual ability and our performance in school is determined more by genetic and general social factors (e.g. socioeconomic class) than any specific behaviors that our parents engage in to prepare us for school. At least in childhood. But do these same factors hold true in adolesence, early adulthood, and beyond? Are we "formed" early in our lives and the path of our existence irreverisibly established? Or do other factors play more important roles later in life? And most importantly, from my perspective as a teacher, does the power to develop and grow primarily reside within the learner or is it determined by the environment created by the teacher. What do you think?

Learning Journal Entries

Participants in the Educational Theory and Practice course are expected to keep a “learning journal.” Following EVERY class discussion session (preferably within 1 week), each participant will make an entry into his/her learning journal. The learning journal can take the form of an electronic “blog.” You can create your own blog at Regardless of whether you create a paper or electronic version, journal entries should contain the following:

Part A – What did I learn?

1) Write a brief summary of the class session. Recall and describe the learning activities and concepts discussed during the class session.

2) Reflect on the importance and relevance of the material covered in this class session to you. Write a few sentences that specifically state why this material is important and how you envision it will be applied in your professional life.

Part B – Discovery

3) Identify a book, an article, web-site, newspaper article, videotape, or other media that relates to the material discussed during the session. This material is in addition to the required reading. Photocopy the material (if less than 10 pages), create a web link in your blog, or write a brief description of the material in your journal.

4) Reflecting on the material you’ve discovered, write a few sentences that specifically state why this material is relevant to the topic. Postulate on the application of this information in your professional life.