Here’s the study
A 2004 study by David Beversdorf, an assistant professor in Ohio State’s department of neurology, and Jessa Alexander, a research assistant in the department, revealed a correlation between medical students’ stress levels and their performance on various types of tests.
Beversdorf and Alexander gave 19 medical students three tests, one or two days before a midterm, a time when the students attested to being under large amounts of stress.
In a memory test, students were asked to repeat strings of numbers up to nine in length. In the first creative problem-solving test, the same students were given three words and then asked to think of one word that could be combined with all three to form a compound word or short phrase.
In the last test Beversdorf and Alexander had the students fill in the only blank spot on a grid that had a series of shapes and symbols. The medical students were given a list of possible solutions and asked to choose the shape or symbol that best fit with the other shapes in the grid.
Students did considerably better on the memorization test, indicating that they were not able to think as flexibly during times of stress.
“We were curious in a real-world setting whether stressers may be reacting to (norepinephrine), causing changes in cognitive performance,” Beversdorf said.
Norepinephrine is a chemical compound found in the brain that has long been identified with subconscious response to threatening situations.
The researchers administered similar tests to the same students one week after their midterms, a period of time when they were less likely to be stressed. The students performed slightly worse on the memory test, yet did better on the word and grid test.
“We have done studies with artificial stressers in the lab,” Alexander said. “I wanted to look at a more natural stresser in a setting that occurs normally to see how identical we could get to (the lab results).”
Other experts at OSU were not surprised by the results of the study.
“When individuals are faced with a challenging task, they are less likely to perform well in complex situations,” said Jennifer Graham, a postdoctoral fellow at OSU’s Institute of Behavioral Medicine Research. “The nature of the two situations here is relevant only in that it indicates recalling a list of numbers is a simpler task than complex problem solving.”
In order to add more validity to their results, Beversdorf and Alexander are currently in the process of gathering a larger field of participants for similar research to be conducted this winter.
Beversdorf is also conducting research involving functional MRI scanning to measure the effects of norepinephrine, as well as studying the effects of cocaine on cognitive processes.