Why Stress Can Be Beneficial for Learning - Examined Existence

Why Stress Can Be Beneficial for Learning


Do you remember when you crammed for an exam? How do you think were you able to learn at a short time and under so much pressure? The answer to these questions has long eluded neuroscientists. Exactly how the brain works has been a baffling question to many until recently. It appears that the brain learns differently when it needs to process knowledge and information under stress.

What Do Studies Show About Learning under Stress?

In one of the recent studies conducted by Ruhr-Universitat Bochum scientists, it was revealed that the adrenal cortex releases hormones as a response to stress encountered by a person. These hormones are responsible for stimulating the mineralocorticoid receptors which, in turn, prompt the brain to shift into unconscious learning processes if absorbing a particular knowledge at that point is necessary. However, when the mineralocorticoid receptors were blocked, the research subjects in this group shifted to unconscious learning in much-reduced frequency and resulted to poorer learning efficacy.

This study was confirmed in MRI data which shows the brain’s activities while under stress. It was learned that there is a shift of major brain activities from the hippocampus to the dorsal striatum. Conscious learning is centrally managed in the hippocampus with its facility for declarative memory; while unconscious learning is managed in the dorsal striatum and procedural memory. This shift is facilitated by the amygdala connectivity which is responsible for emotional and memory functions.

How’s That Again?


In lay man’s language, it simply means that a person under stress has ways of learning quite apart from the way he learns under normal situations. Without stress, a person thinks logically and achieves high learning efficiency by exercising his conscious reasoning abilities. The part of the brain that is responsible in these conditions is the hippocampus. However, under stress, the brain doesn’t work as usual. It seems that the brain automatically switches from the hippocampus to the part which relies on instinct and gut feel. This is the brain’s preferred mode in dealing with stress. This is unconscious learning. It appears like reflex reaction in learning and was observed to be highly efficient. It is the brain’s way of coping and surviving. At a situation when learning is critical and stressful, like when there is an impending exam or a military training test with a very short time to grasp information and learn a skill, the brain realizes that all conscious resources are stretched thin due to stress and are unreliable to take charge of learning. The instinctive and unconscious-learning part of the brain is more dependable at situations like this, hence the brain shift. This is the concept behind military training under pressure and learning survival skills. Stress (ferocious commanding officers) is introduced to enhance learning at a short time.

Is Stress Beneficial to Learning?

Stress has always been written as a bad thing.  Products in the markekplace do especially well when sold under the premise of an anti-stress or stress-reducing silver bullet. But is stress downright negative? It appears that a good amount of stress can actually be beneficial. In the field of psychology, some forms of stress are useful in making a person alert and attentive. Alertness and attentiveness are necessary conditions in learning. Mild to moderate stress prepares a person to handle a major learning hurdle, such as an exam, heightens his attention level, and makes him learn faster.

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Humans have always done that, and it is called instinct. When faced with uncertainty, change or challenge, the body responds to stress with hormonal reactions. It revs, energizes, and produces adrenalin to pump the body into action. This short-term motivation can be carried to long-term improvement in learning and performance. Continued exposure to manageable stress also leads to a person’s resilience until such extent that learning under pressure becomes a normal thing. While it is not correct to say that learning and stress must be the standard in acquiring knowledge, there are situations when learning under stress is inevitable. This is just to elucidate that, indeed, the brain has a way of learning while coping with stress.

Can One Be Taught to “Learn Unconsciously”?

Now, it is safe to say that people learn under stress and do so unconsciously. Since it is unconscious learning, can it be taught? Unconscious equates to instinct, and hence, automatic. From this context it would seem that it cannot be taught. But your body and brain can get accustomed to it. You can teach yourself to relax under a barrage of stressors – breathe easy, slow, and long. You can teach yourself to clench and relax your muscles one by one, ask a question to be repeated while you clear your mind, learn the tactics of stalling while gathering yourself, and talk clearly and firmly even when inside you are a bundle of nerves.

You probably heard about “thinking on your feet.” Well, in a way, it’s how the brain thinks with the unconscious learning mode. It is how the brain gets out of a difficult and stressful situation. Visualize the CEO looking at you straight in the eye and telling you to “present a proposal on how the company is going to recoup in two months the losses it incurred under your department,” and do that in two hours! You most certainly want to black out and vanish from the face of the earth. But the brain realizes it has to think on its feet, and fast. Even if you have prepared for situations like these (and please note that you have done so with your conscious learning mode), the moment the CEO glared at you, it is your unconscious mode that takes over to take spur-of-the-moment action.

The brain is a complex mass. It takes stock of all ammunition you have stored in your arsenal, works you up in full throttle, and enables you to think through a complicated challenge. Naturally, your conscious learning faculties work at its default level, serving as a resource. But it is the intuitive unconscious learning faculty that carries you through the whole stressful learning situation.

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