Stress makes it harder for people to plan for the future, new research finds.
This is because being under stress robs people of their ability to use their memory effectively.
Memory is vital for planning, explained Professor Anthony Wagner, study co-author:
“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.”
For the study, people sat in front of a computer and learned a series of routes through a virtual town.
People were then asked to navigate around the town, but some people were told they would be given a random electric shock at some point.
The results showed that stress made it harder for people to use and act on their memories.
With the electric shock in the back of their minds, people tended to wander randomly around in habitual patterns.
Brain scans revealed that stress caused lower activation in the hippocampus, an area of the brain important for memory.
Stress also reduced activation in the area of the brain linked to planning, the frontal-parietal lobes.
Professor Wagner said:
“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.”
Stress seems to take the memory replay system offline, said Dr Thackery Brown, the study’s first author:
“Its kind of like our brain is pushed into a more low-level thought-process state, and that corresponds with this reduced planning behavior.”
The researchers are now looking at this effect in older age-groups, said Dr Brown:
“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.”
The study was published in the journal Current Biology (Brown et al., 2020).