How challenges change the way you think

November 9, 2017, Frontiers
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Research published today in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience shows that challenging situations make it harder to understand where you are and what's happening around you. A team of researchers showed participants video clips of a positive, a negative and a neutral situation. After watching the challenging clips—whether positive or negative—the participants performed worse on tests measuring their unconscious ability to acquire information about where and when things happen. This suggests that challenging situations cause the brain to drop nuanced, context-based cognition in favor of reflexive action.

Previous research suggests that long-term memories formed under stress lack the context and peripheral details encoded by the hippocampus, making false alarms and reflexive reactions more likely. These context details are necessary for situating yourself in space and time, so struggling to acquire them has implications for decision-making in the moment as well as in memory formation.

The research team, led by Thomas Maran, Marco Furtner and Pierre Sachse, investigated the short-term effects of challenging experiences on acquiring these context details. The team also investigated whether experiences coded as positive produced the same response as those coded as negative.

"We aimed to make this change measurable on a behavioral level, to draw conclusions on how behavior in everyday life and challenging situations is affected by variations in arousal," Thomas Maran explains.

The researchers predicted that study participants would be less able to acquire spatial and sequential context after watching challenging clips, and that their performance would worsen the same way faced with either a positive or a negative clip. To test this, they used clips of film footage used previously to elicit reactions in stress studies: one violent scene (which participants experienced as negative), one sex scene (which participants experienced as positive), and one neutral control scene.

Immediately after watching the clips, two groups of participants performed tasks designed to test their ability to acquire either spatial or sequential context. Both the sex scene and violent scene disrupted participants' ability to memorize where objects had been and notice patterns in two different tasks, compared to the neutral . This supports the hypothesis that challenging situations—positive or negative—cause the brain to drop nuanced, context-based cognition in favor of reflexive action.

So if challenging situations decrease the ability to pick up on context cues, how does this happen? The researchers suggest that the answer may lie in the hippocampus region of the brain—although they caution that since no neurophysiological techniques were applied in this study, this can't be proven. Since existing evidence supports the idea that the hippocampus is deeply involved in retrieving and reconstructing spatial and temporal details, downgrading this function when faced with a potentially dangerous situation could stop this context acquisition and achieve the effect seen in this behavioral study. Reflexive reactions are less complex and demanding, and might stop individuals from making decisions based on unreliable information from unpredictable surroundings.

"Changes in cognition during high arousal states play an important role in psychopathology," Thomas Maran explains, outlining his hopes for the future use of this research. He considers that the evidence provided by this study may have important therapeutic and forensic applications. It also gives a better basis for understanding reactions to challenging situations—from witnessing a crime to fighting on a battlefield—and the changes in the brain that make those reactions happen.

Explore further: Memory of social interactions impaired in all phases of schizophrenia

More information: Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2017.00206 , https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnbeh.2017.00206/full

Related Stories

Memory of social interactions impaired in all phases of schizophrenia

July 12, 2017
People with schizophrenia have trouble remembering the details of social interactions in all phases of the illness, researchers report. However, in the early stages of schizophrenia, patients can remember more about these ...

Why bad experiences are remembered out of context

May 10, 2016
Bad experiences can cause people to strongly remember the negative content itself but only weakly remember the surrounding context, and a new UCL study funded by the Medical Research Council and Wellcome Trust has revealed ...

Appetizing imagery puts visual perception on fast forward

October 5, 2017
People rated images containing positive content as fading more smoothly compared with neutral and negative images, even when they faded at the same rate, according to findings published in Psychological Science, a journal ...

Our brain dissociates emotional response from explicit memory in fearful situations

November 5, 2014
Researchers at the Cognition and Brain Plasticity group of the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL) and the University of Barcelona have been tracking the traces of implicit and explicit memories of fear in human. ...

Come to think of it or not: Study shows how memories can be intentionally forgotten

May 5, 2016
Context plays a big role in our memories, both good and bad. Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" on the car radio, for example, may remind you of your first love—or your first speeding ticket. But a Dartmouth- and Princeton-led ...

Oxytocin turns up the volume of your social environment

September 20, 2017
Before you shop for the "cuddle" hormone oxytocin to relieve stress and enhance your social life, read this: a new study from the University of California, Davis, suggests that sometimes, blocking the action of oxytocin in ...

Recommended for you

Ritalin drives greater connection between brain areas key to memory, attention

December 13, 2018
There's a reason so many children are prescribed methylphenidate, better known by the trade name Ritalin: it helps kids quell attention and hyperactivity problems and sit still enough to focus on a school lesson.

Attention, please! Anticipation of touch takes focus, executive skills

December 12, 2018
Anticipation is often viewed as an emotional experience, an eager wait for something to happen.

Study highlights potential benefits of continuous EEG monitoring for infant patients

December 12, 2018
A recent retrospective study evaluating continuous electroencephalography (cEEG) of children in intensive care units (ICUs) found a higher than anticipated number of seizures. The work also identified several conditions closely ...

The importins of anxiety

December 11, 2018
According to some estimates, up to one in three people around the world may experience severe anxiety in their lifetime. In a study described today in Cell Reports, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science have revealed ...

How returning to a prior context briefly heightens memory recall

December 11, 2018
Whether it's the pleasant experience of returning to one's childhood home over the holidays or the unease of revisiting a site that proved unpleasant, we often find that when we return to a context where an episode first ...

Neurons in the brain work as a team to guide movement of arms, hands

December 11, 2018
The apparent simplicity of picking up a cup of coffee or turning a doorknob belies the complex sequence of calculations and processes that the brain must undergo to identify the location of an item in space, move the arm ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.