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Stress and Memory

Stress is not all bad and it doesn't affect all memory

As AND Magazine Publisher, I must admit; I have more stress now than prior to launching AND. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I thrive under pressure. Nevertheless, what I am learning now is that the efficiency of my memory is directly related to my stress levels.

I should preface this article with an admission that I have had plenty of stresses in my life... likely more than most. This will benefit you as I describe and discuss the learning processes related to memory.

To help those with a more introductory level of understanding of the relationship between learning and memory from a functional perspective, I'll take a stab at explaining the neuroanatomy of and neural processes related to both memory and learning. These key points helped me understand the stress/memory relationship, so I'd like to help you, too.

Better yet, these components lead into the importance of how lifelong learning and stimulation assists in making a person's life more productive and add years to an individual's life.

First, neuroanatomy of and neural processes has a great impact on memory. It was reported by U.S. National Library of Medicine that: "An event-related functional magnetic-resonance-imaging (fMRI) experiment that investigates the relationship of transient visual object memory, visuospatial orienting, and object recognition. Delayed object matching and visuospatial orienting involved a highly overlapping network of brain areas. Common areas were the frontal eye fields (FEF), the pre-supplementary motor area (pre-SMA)/SMA complex, the precentral gyri, and the horizontal and descending branches of the intraparietal sulcus (IPS). Selective delay activation was observed anterior to the FEF and in the ascending part of the IPS. Right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was involved in goal-directed visual search, but showed no delay activity" (Pollmann, von Cramon, 2007).

Stress, which affects the nervous system, emits hormones.
There are many types of memory one being emotional memory. Distinct neural processes for valence and arousal play an enormous part in retaining and decoding emotional memory. The nervous system also plays a tremendous part in the formation or decline of memory. Neuroanatomy, which is the study of the structure of the nervous system, has brought to the attention of those in the medical field how much the nervous system plays in memory. For example stress, which affects the nervous system, emits hormones such as glucocorticoids. According to research reported by The Franklin Institute, "Chronic over-secretion of stress hormones adversely affects brain function, especially memory. Too much cortisol can prevent the brain from laying down a new memory, or from accessing already existing memories." The renowned brain researcher, Robert M. Sapolsky, has shown that sustained stress can damage the hippocampus, the part of the limbic brain, which is central to learning and memory. The culprits are "glucocorticoids," a class of steroid hormones secreted from the adrenal glands during stress. They are more commonly known as corticosteroids or cortisol. During a perceived threat, the adrenal glands immediately release adrenalin. If the threat is severe or still persists after a couple of minutes, the adrenals then release cortisol. Once in the brain cortisol remains much longer than adrenalin, where it continues to affect brain cells"? (The Franklin Institute, 2004)

Stress is not all bad.
As I stated earlier, stress is not all bad and it doesn't affect all memory. But some of the active hormones don't know when to stop pulling. If the hormones stay in the brain for too long they may cause permanent damage to the hippocampus, which is the portion of the brain that is needed for memory.

The neuroanatomy of and neural processes related to learning is best described as, the things that people learn throughout their lives that stay placed in the individuals memory. The things that we obtain throughout our learning years can, however, be lost in time with amnesia, dementia, and memory loss. There are times our memory cannot be repaired or replaced, seeming to no longer exist and lost forever.

What knowledge an individual learns throughout the course of their life, the ability to retain that information, and the ability to recall such information when needed, is part of becoming an adult. Babies learn to eat, crawl, walk, and talk throughout the course of only a few years. Those abilities will stay throughout life as long as they continue to exercise their minds with new learning. As people age, many will begin to experience the loss of cognition or recognition. They'll feel they know something but cannot access the information, or they have completely forgotten learning it in the first place.

One of the natural learning paradigms, assuming the conditioning in a Pavlovian case is an adaptive trait, occurs in natural conditions. The difference is that when removed from a laboratory or clinical setting the scientist or experimenter is not able to ensure any occurrences of a conditioned stimulus match, with reliability, to an unconditioned stimulus. In other words, the conditioned versus unconditioned pairings required for demonstrating Pavlovian conditioned learning versus memory response, must occur naturally in an unfettered environment. In order for this to occur, the conditioned stimulus must be naturally associated to the unconditioned response, as opposed to a random cue or stimulus. A random conditioned response might occur with an unconditioned response amidst natural environmental circumstances; however, an occurrence of this nature is rare. Additionally, an accidental pairing between a conditioned response and an unconditioned response is sure to have a preceding unpaired conditioned stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus, this condition can deteriorate the progress of conditioned responding. (Rescorla 2000, Benedict & Ayres 1971)

Because of this, and despite the fact that conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus associations reside within the body's nervous system, physical relationships are present with the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus, which are present in the routinely occurring environment of the individual being evaluated. A relationship that was present between conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus can be present in many different variations. One variation occurs within a stimulus at the beginning of a series of occurrences toward the onset of what leads up to an unconditional stimulus.

There are other variations, such as the conditioned stimulus being a component of the unconditioned stimulus. These, in the beginning, don't require the unconditional stimulus; however, after extended interaction with the unconditioned stimulus, they do learn to require the unconditioned stimulus. Without actual experimentation, the presence of a conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus, which possess varying features of the same item, assures that conditional stimulus will be present and contain the temporal relation between the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus. A relation like this, which already exists between conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus, most likely a component of naturally occurring events and therefore must be cautiously considered within any form of study.

Learning and memory are an essential part of the human condition.

Individuals grow through learning. "Learning deals with how experience changes the brain" (Pinel, 2009). A child will not go back to crawling as their main form of transportation once they learn to walk. Learning to walk changes their brains in the way they think about movement it is progressive and a process that should stay with the child throughout their life. However, just as the child will have to eat right and exercise to stay healthy as they age into a long adulthood, measures must be taken to ensure the advancement of their brain and its longevity.

The Mind
The Mind

A mind is the set of cognitive faculties that enables consciousness, perception, thinking, judgement, and memory a characteristic of humans, but which also may apply to other life forms. |
Lifelong learning is a necessary to brain health.
"Researchers believe that brain fitness improves mental functioning and decreases dementia risks because mental activity stimulates your brain cells and increases their ability to communicate with each other" (McCoy, 2011). Mental stimulation is a way to ward off age-related changes that can occur without the strengthening of the connections within our brains. A child is born with three times the amount of synapses in the brain as compared to an adult. The brain eliminates synapse connections that are rarely or never used thus proving why lifelong learning is so important to brain health. Lifelong learning is not a difficult thing to acquire either by simply learning something new, being creative, or playing different brainteaser one can improve brain fitness.

Use it or lose it.
The point is, intellectual quality of life can be an individuals choosing. To live healthy, one has to be healthy and this applies to your brain as much as anything else. I've learned that lifelong learning is a constant I can't do without. The brain is often thought of or referred to as a "use it or lose it" organ and it's clear many have chosen the latter. Be the former. Use your brain, exercise your choice, learn something daily, and stop with all the status quo. It's common sense.

  1. Benedict JO, Ayres JJB. (1971). Factors affecting conditioning in the truly random control procedure in the rat. J. Comp. Physiol. Psych.78:323'30
  2. McCoy, K.?(2011).?Brain Fitness: Continue Learning for Longevity. Pinel, J. P. J. (2009) Biopsychology (7th ed.). Boston MA: Allyn and Bacon.
  3. Pollmann, S., & von Cramon, D. Y. (2007, July). Object working memory and visuospatial processing: functional neuroanatomy analyzed by event-related fMRI. PubMed, 133(1), 12-22.
  4. Rescorla RA. (2000). Associative changes with a random CS-US relationship. Q. J. Exp. Psychol. 53B:325'40
  5. Resources for Science Learning. (2004). The Human Brain.

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Updated Feb 1, 2018 7:50 AM EST | More details


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