How is Memory Affected By Stress?

Moving information from our working or short-term memory into our long term memory involves 3 stages. It is easy for stress to interfere with any of these stages — and then there goes your memory! Here is the answer to “How is memory affected by stress?”

How is Memory Affected By Stress?

How is memory affected by stress? Memory encoding is interrupted.

Interfere with the memory

When we encode information, we usually have many methods that we use to ensure that this information will start to be consolidated.  Most of the time however, we simply repeat the information in our head in order to memorize it.  If I give you the phone number 761-6131 and ask you to go and dial it on the pay phone at the end of the corridor, there is a good chance that on your way to the payphone, you will repeat this number over and over again until you can dial it.  By doing this, you are ensuring that the memory trace of the phone number stays active in your short-term memory.

Although this system works quite well most of the time, the caveat is that this system is very sensitive to interference.  For example, if, while walking toward the payphone to dial the number, you meet your friend Sarah in the corridor who starts talking to you, then there is a very high probability that you will forget in an instant the phone number that you were repeating over and over again!

Stress is like Sarah showing up before you can encode the number; it is a form of inteference. When you are stressed by something (e.g. work, a colleague etc.) this stress takes a lot of resources from your brain and interferes with your capacity to encode any new information.  This is when you will ‘forget’ the management’ meeting, or to bring your child to the dentist. Did you really forget these events? OR did these events even make their way into your memory in the first place i.e. were they encoded?

This entire article from the Centre for Studies on Human Stress can be read here.

So “how is memory affected by stress?” Apparently,  it’s not the stress itself, but rather the interference  that causes the memory problems. What do you think of that?

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