A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 26, 2013

Learning Is Tougher For Stressed Out Men; But Not Necessarily for Women

Researchers have long known that stress impairs various human functions. But newer data and enhanced computing power is giving us more specific insights into the affects.

The news that men may be more susceptible to the impact of stress, especially as it compromises their ability to learn may explain certain trends in education.

Women now comprise the majority of university students in the United States. They are currently 60 percent of those seeking degrees in higher education and that number may go higher. Various explanations have been offered, not the least of which is that womens' ability is only belatedly being recognized. But given that this trend became particularly pronounced during and since the financial crisis and recession, it may be that mens' perhaps inherent difficulties were exacerbated by the stress of the economic problems. Changing gender and family roles may have also contributed to this more generalized concern about expectations, responsibility and performance.

The societal implication is that we are, perhaps, too cavalier about the impact change has on individuals and organizations. We may also not be as sensitive to our ability to optimize experiences for different kinds of people in different situations. Awareness of these possibilities could make people, organizations and societies more effective by focusing efforts on expected outcomes that, with some forethought, might be mitigated when necessary. JL

Tori Rodriguez reports in Scientific American

“Males appear to be more sensitive to stress- and cortisol-related impairments of learning and memory,”
says Phillip R. Zoladz, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio Northern University.

Stress can help or hurt learning depending on when the stressor hits. As psychologists well know, exposure to brief stress just before an event can enhance long-term memory of that occurrence. Had the stressful experience descended 30 minutes prior, learning would instead have been impaired. A new study published in the February Neurobiology of Learning and Memory now finds that the effect is sex-dependent.
Male and female participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups: For three minutes, one group submerged a hand in ice-cold water, while the control subjects placed their hand in warm water. Thirty minutes later they attempted to memorize a list of words on which they were tested 24 hours later.
Men who exhibited a robust physiological response to the stress of the ice bath, as measured by levels of the hormone cortisol in their blood, could not recall as many words as men who were less fazed by the cold, men in the control group, or women in both groups. Women who had a minimal cortisol response to the ice water performed better than the control groups, although the difference was small.
Some studies suggest that in women, stress effects may be mediated by stages of the menstrual cycle, which can alter sensitivity to stress hormones, but the new study did not investigate that variable.
Only a physiological test can truly determine whether your memory is vulnerable to prelearning stress, but signs such as a racing heart and sweaty palms may be clues that you might be prone to this effect. If so, tried-and-true memory-boosting techniques can help. “If stress is causing forgetfulness, it can be helpful to use reminders—like sticky notes placed where they will catch your attention—to trigger a memory,” Zoladz says.


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