Learning while stressed involves the brain’s unconscious, not conscious, processes. Neuroscientists from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Bochum, Germany have identified the element of the brain that makes this switch and what triggers it. They have also investigated how the shift to unconscious processing while stressed can affect the ability to learn.

When the brain switches from conscious to unconscious learning processes, it activates mineralocorticoid receptors using hormones released in response to stress. The researchers found that when the activation of this receptor is disrupted, people do not learn as efficiently.

The study involved 80 participants, 50 of whom were given a drug that would block the brain’s mineralocorticoid receptors; the rest received a placebo. Next, 20 subjects from each group were subjected to a stressful experience. Then, all participants did a learning test while undergoing an MRI. The learning test called for participants to predict the

weather based on which playing cards they were shown. Participants had to learn the pattern in order to make accurate predictions.

This study builds on previous research that demonstrated that the brain prefers unconscious learning when stressed. So, the research team was interested in discovering what the brain would do when its system for learning while stressed was disrupted. The subjects who took the mineralocorticoid receptor-blocking drug did not switch to unconscious learning strategies as often as the placebo-taking subjects. The researchers also observed, via the MRI data, that although stress typically induces a shift in learning from the hippocampus (a major part of short- and long-term memory consolidation) to the dorsal striatum (a part of unconscious learning), the group who took the receptor-blocking drug did not exhibit this shift.

Lars Schwabe, lead researcher, explained of his findings “This switch to another memory system happens automatically. It makes sense for the organism to react in this manner. Thus, learning efficiency can be maintained even under stress.”

This study is published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

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