Understanding Your Brain Under Pressure

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Author: Angela Ziegler

Why is it always so much more difficult to remember something during a test instead of when you’re at home? Or why is it that you suddenly forget everything when you’re put “on the spot”? Well, it’s because of a concept known as state-dependent functioning.

State-dependent functioning is the idea that people process and store information in different ways depending on their current internal state.

It comes from the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT), developed by Dr. Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D. This information came from his book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. It’s a really interesting book and I highly recommend it.

WARNING: if you want to read the book it has some really sad stories of children who have experienced extreme trauma. It is not a children’s book and should be read by an older audience.

To explain why it’s more difficult to think clearly when under pressure, we have to quickly go over two concepts central to the NMT: the human brain and internal states.

When you are stressed or under pressure, you aren’t using your brain to its fullest capacity.”

The human brain is quite complex, but the NMT focuses on four general regions: the brainstem, midbrain, limbic system, and cortex. They develop sequentially in the same order as they evolved. First, there’s the brainstem, the most basic part that controls things like body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. Then, there’s the midbrain, which deals with things like sleep and appetite. The limbic system (the mammal part of the brain) deals with emotions, sexual activity, and attachment. And the cortex (the “smart part of the brain”) is where complex and abstract thoughts can occur. That’s the part you have to use when learning new things.

In the NMT, your internal state is always changing. You may feel calm, alert, alarmed, fearful, or terrified. As you go up in the levels, you are more and more distressed. The state of terror is the most stressed state that you can be in.

So, what does this have to do with anything?

Well, the less regulated your internal state is, the less you are actually able to access the “smart part” of your brain. To put it another way, when you are stressed or under pressure, you aren’t using your brain to its fullest capacity. This makes it harder to recall, process, and store new information. Also, when you are stressed it becomes harder to think in the long-term. Going back to the test example, it might be more difficult to remember something during a test because you may be stressed during the test. This means that you can’t use your cortex to its greatest potential.

Knowing this, you can apply it to your own life. If you’re preparing yourself for a presentation or performance it’s helpful to acknowledge if you’re stressed, so that you can start taking steps to calm yourself down. This idea can also help in retrospect. If you messed up or forgot something, you can recognize that it’s not entirely your fault. It’s normal and expected for people to forget things especially when people are stressed. Your performance under pressure doesn’t necessarily reflect your true abilities when in a stress-free environment, because when you’re under pressure it’s harder to access the intelligent part of your brain.

To sum up, you can only access the smartest parts of your brain when you are calm and stress-free. When you’re stressed, you can’t expect yourself to be able to think clearly. Being in a safe environment where you feel calm is the best way to optimize your thinking and learning!