A study conducted by Stanford University observed the damaging effects of stress on our decision-making skills by hampering our ability to draw from memory. Humans use past experiences to make plans for the future and problem-solving. However high levels of stress damage this cognitive function impairing efficient and quick decision making.
The results imply the privilege afforded on those who are not stressed by being able to rely on better memory systems. This gives people belonging to better socioeconomic and political backgrounds a neurocognitive edge over those living in turbulent circumstances.
The researchers utilized VR technology and mapped the participant’s brain activity via fMRI as they traveled through virtual towns. Once the participants grew familiar with the routes they were placed on a memorized path and asked to make their way to a goal location. An important point to consider is that the participants included in the study were all men.
Before the participants navigated their way to the target location some of them were warned that they might receive mild electric shocks during their journey. Brain scans before beginning the journey reveal less activity in the hippocampus and the frontal-parietal lobe of the stressed participants. Both these brain structures are associated with accessing stored information and drawing conclusions to achieve present goals.
Moreover, the participants traversing through the village without the fear of receiving electric shocks were able to discover novel shortcuts based on prior memory. While the participants worrying about getting randomly shocked stuck to old habitual routes and showed little to no innovation.
The researchers further aim to discover the role of stress in memory loss experienced in an older demographic with participants ranging from 65 to 80 years in age. Another future direction that the research could follow is taking into account hormonal effects by including women. At present, the study was limited to male participants due to existing evidence of a more significant result of stress on cortisol and memory performance.
The study combined with previous research in the field suggests that acute psychological stress limits access to hippocampal-dependent memories which affects planning ahead and informed decision making. Therefore including de-stressing activities such as meditation, exercise and mindfulness can increase cognitive function and improve overall efficiency.