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How the Brain Compensates for Stress to Learn

New research has revealed how the brain compensates for stress while trying to learn something new.

For the new study, researchers from Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany compared the performance of 16 stressed men with the performance of 16 relaxed men in categorization learning.

Half of the men had to put their hands in ice water and were filmed before they took the learning test. The other half had to put their hands in warm water and were not filmed.

“We decided to design our study with men only for now, because women tend to react differently to stress during their hormone cycle,” said Marcus Paul, one of the study’s authors.

During the test the men had to divide different colored rings by means of their color scheme in two categories. They not only had to learn to assign typical objects, but also exceptions — rings that differed from other rings in their category.

Previous studies have shown that the brain regions that are crucial for learning exceptions are particularly sensitive to stress, the researchers noted.

During the test, the scientists measured the brain activity of the participants by EEG.

The stressed participants performed as well as the relaxed ones in the categorization-test, according to the study’s findings.

But their brains showed increased activity during the test and they used additional brain regions, the researchers report. The EEG of the stressed participants revealed increased activity in the theta-frequency above the medial prefrontal cortex, particularly when the participants learned the exceptions. Theta waves reflect cognitive control mechanisms, the researchers explain.

“We think we have found a mechanism which allows us to give a good performance in a categorization-test, even if we are stressed,” said Professor Oliver Wolf from the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience at Bochum.

In the next step, the scientists intend to analyze whether the change in the neuronal activity of stressed and relaxed participants during the learning process affects their performance in a test conducted on the following day.

The study was published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Source: Ruhr-Universität Bochum

How the Brain Compensates for Stress to Learn

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). How the Brain Compensates for Stress to Learn. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 11 Mar 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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