Stress Affects Men and Women Differently When It Comes to Learning Finds Study

December 13th, 2013 No Comments Other

Although the stress that precedes a big exam or important presentation is universally experienced, new research has found that men and women perform very differently when exposed to stressful conditions.

The study, published earlier this year in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, showed that in men, the cortisol response to stress was associated with impaired memory.

Female respondents, on the other hand, showed no such signs of memory impairment after being exposed to stress. In fact, there was even a trend for an impairment of long-term recognition memory in female non-responders, suggesting, if anything, that cortisol was memory protective in females.

Another notable finding was that the timing of the stressor also strongly influences memory and learning.

“One factor that plays an important role in dictating whether stress enhances or impairs learning is the stage of learning and memory that is affected by the stress,” note the researchers in their report.

To study the effects of pre-learning stress, both male and female participants were asked to submerge their dominant hand in a bath of water for three minutes. Those assigned to the stress condition placed their hand in a bath of ice cold water, while the control group used warm water.

To measure participants’ stress responses, the researchers took saliva samples and cardiovascular measurements throughout the experiment.

Half an hour following the water test, participants were assigned a list of 30 words to read aloud and rate for emotional valence and arousal level, after which they were asked to write down as many words as they could remember.

Approximately 24 hours later, participants were tested on the list of words they had studied the previous day.

Men who exhibited a strong stress reaction to the cold water had more difficulty recalling the words than men who were less affected by the water test, and men in the control group.

Women in both groups performed better on the memory tests than the men who were found to have higher levels of cortisol after the water test.

“It may be that females choose coping strategies that are different from males, which consequently results in different neurobiological responses to stress, therefore leading to different effects on learning and memory,” says Phillip R. Zoladz, associate professor of psychology and the study’s lead author.

“However, the research on this is limited, so any claims that are made would be purely speculative,” he adds.

Zoladz also points out that although females may be protected from memory impairments induced by stress, they often show greater enhancements of memory following stress.

This has led some researchers to speculate that females may be more likely to develop disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder because they are more likely to form strong emotional memories of the trauma.

“Being protected from stress-induced impairments of learning and memory does not generalize to protection from stress-induced enhancements of learning and memory,” explains Zoladz. He also notes that the research in this area is not unequivocal.

“There are inconsistencies, and one thing that is certainly related to some of these inconsistencies is the timing of the stressor relative to learning, which I examined in my study.”

However, given that men do appear to be more sensitive to stress and cortisol-related impairments of learning and memory, what can be done to mitigate the effects of pre-learning stress in this group?

“One could argue that clinical techniques, such as relaxed breathing techniques, can reduce such stress,” says Zoladz.

“I always like to emphasize controllability. Arousing, aversive experiences have significantly greater effects on an individual’s physiology and behavior when that individual perceives a lack of control over the situation.

Therefore, the more control one has over the situation, the fewer adverse effects the individual will experience.”


Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

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