Though it's widely assumed that stress zaps a person's ability to recall memory, it doesn't have that effect when memory is tested immediately after a taxing event and when subjects have engaged in a highly effective learning technique, reports a new study.
In the last decade, the studies done on memory and stress have largely involved the participants, who were not guided in how to learn new material -- often simply attempting to memorize it by rereading or restudying, strategies known to build weak recollections.
‘Stress may not always impair memory retrieval after a taxing event or when subjects have engaged in a highly effective learning technique.’
Thus, it has been unclear whether all memories are subject to the detrimental effects of stress or whether only weakly encoded ones are vulnerable. Also complicating past studies, most participants were tested 25 minutes after a stressful event when the cortisol-level was highest in the blood. To explore both areas' impact on memory, Amy Smith and colleagues invited 120 participants to study images.
Sixty participants then restudied them, while the other sixty were asked to engage in "retrieval practice," recalling as many as they could, an approach consistently shown to yield better long-term memory. The following day, both groups underwent a stressful situation and then were asked to recall images from the previous day five minutes later.
Stressed individuals, who had only "restudied" content the day before, recalled fewer items than their non-stressed re-studying counterparts, while for both stressed and non-stressed "retrieval practice" participants - recall was nearly the same, as if stress wasn't present. The retrieval practice participants, who underwent stress still outperformed non-stressed participants who only restudied content.