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“During times of stress, our inner autopilot tTakes the lead“
Professor Oliver Wolf; © private
Professor Oliver Wolf, Chair of Cognitive Psychology, (Department of Psychology), Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany, particularly studies the impact of stress on memory capacity. MEDICA.de talked with him about Cortisol, the stress hormone, the evolutionary background and structural changes in the brain.
MEDICA.de: Christmas time or important exams are absolute stress factors for many of us. Professor Wolf, what kinds of situations clearly cause stress?
Oliver Wolf: You can differentiate between psychological and physiological stress factors in this case. In the first instance you also talk about a social-evaluative threat. One decisive factor and therefore an elicitor of stress responses is the issue of how I am viewed by other people, how my performance and my personality are being rated. Typical examples for this are presentations, exams, speeches in public, but also athletic challenges.
MEDICA.de: And what is meant by physiological elicitors?
Wolf: If you stick your hand into freezing water for three minutes for example, our body is placed into a stressful condition. Saliva samples at the laboratory showed that the stress hormone Cortisol strongly increases. One control group with comfortably warm water showed normal levels of Cortisol.
MEDICA.de: How does this stress-induced increase of Cortisol affect our memory?
Wolf: Research has shown that we remember a stressful event better; though not necessarily the individual details, but the main factors. However, recalling content in a stressful situation is more difficult. This can often be seen in exams or during witness statements. In stressful situations Cortisol blocks our memory recall.
MEDICA.de: Does Cortisol also have some positive effects?
Wolf: In stressful moments besides Cortisol, Adrenaline is also being dumped into the bloodstream. Together, both briefly stimulate the hippocampus, which among other things is in charge of long-term memory. This in turn makes it possible for us to learn from a situation thanks to the gained experience, for instance if stress was accompanied by danger.
Even if you have learned everything really well: In a stressful examination cortisol is released which makes it hard to remember everythin properly; © panthermedia.net/Wavebreakmedia ltd
MEDICA.de: Isn’t this also logical from an evolutionary point of view?
Wolf: Yes exactly. Under this kind of acute stress, an increased dumping of Cortisol is normal and also makes sense. Actually in stressful situations we always have reflexive and automated responses. We think less, but act more. During stress our inner autopilot takes the lead so to speak.
MEDICA.de: Are there differences between acute and chronic stress?
Wolf: Our body can adjust quite well to acute stress. Musicians or athletes can even turn this tension into something positive and use stress as an incentive. However, chronic stress causes structural changes in the brain. The neural communication channels shrink in some regions and have fewer contact points. This also deteriorates memory and we make fewer target-oriented and controlled decisions. Whether these changes in the human brain are reversible is unknown at this point.
MEDICA.de: Which consequences can be deduced from this for our everyday life?
Wolf: Acute stress is nothing that’s horrible and our organism can handle it well. If I know ahead of time that I have to perform in what I deem a stressful situation, I should prepare myself as much as possible. Before exams additional relaxation techniques could be used. The most important thing is to be ready for the stressor and to be fully prepared. After all, improvisation with purpose during stressful situations is hard to do. The best thing would be, if during the exam we could just release our knowledge like an automated program.
The interview was conducted by Nadine Lormis and translated by Elena O'Meara.