Feeling Stressed: A Disrupted Memory Stops Us Planning Ahead

Shirley Amy
April 7, 2020

Stanford University has just published some more innovative research in the medical journal, Current Biology. This relates to yet another far reaching effect of stress on our mental health, and indicates that: “stress can hinder our ability to develop informed plans by preventing us from being able to make decisions based on memory.”

stress choices

Goal-Directed Behavior

Indeed, the research paper’s senior author, Anthony Wagner, a well known Stanford psychologist, stated that: “we draw on memory not just to project ourselves backward into the past, but to project ourselves forward, to plan. Stress can rob you of the ability to draw on cognitive systems underlying memory and goal-directed behavior that enable you to solve problems more quickly, more efficiently and more effectively.” This will probably sound familiar to many of us.

Together with other studies that were carried out in Wagner’s Memory Lab and various other institutes, these results could prove a huge asset to help researchers comprehend how different individuals construct plans for their future: “and how lack of stress may afford some people a greater neurologically-based opportunity to think ahead.”

Wagner notes that: “it’s a form of neurocognitive privilege that people who are not stressed can draw on their memory systems to behave more optimally, and we may fail to actually appreciate that some individuals might not be behaving as effectively or efficiently because they are dealing with something, like a health or economic stressor, that reduces that privilege.” The latter seems quite feasible, although further research is needed.

Taking a Look at the Research

The study, which involved the use of  fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans, monitored the subjects’ brain activity and behavior as they  navigated their way through virtual towns. The scientists who conducted it, believe that it is the first time that anyone has shown how the hippocampal-frontal lobe network disruption has the means to take memory replay offline, at the time of a planning session, simply because of stress. The paper’s lead author, postdoctoral scholar at Memory Lab, Thackery Brown, remarked: “its kind of like our brain is pushed into a more low-level thought-process state, and that corresponds with this reduced planning behavior.”

Getting Older & the Repercussions of Stress

As this age group is more vulnerable, Brown has already started carrying out research on subjects aged 65 to 80. This procedure is on a par with the tried and tested virtual navigation experiments already mentioned. If all goes well, this will empower the scientists to better comprehend how the links between planning, memory and stress, impact senior populations.

As Brown says: “it’s a powerful thing to think about how stressful events might affect planning in your grandparents. It affects us in our youth and as we interact with and care for older members of our family, and then it becomes relevant to us in a different way when we are, ourselves, older adults.” Brown is certainly right there, but if you add the stress that youth and older adults suffer in to the equation, then events that happen on all sides, may be less than optimum for all of us…

Shirley Amy

Shirley Amy is a Holistic Health Specialist and professional writer who's published 4 books. Her  interests include optimum wellness, mental health, fitness, and positive lifestyle change. She holds University and College qualifications in the fields of Health Science, Nutrition, Mental Health, Fitness, Holistic Therapy and Aromatherapy.

More For You