Nov 20, 2011

The Discovery Files: Stress Test

In her research, University of Chicago associate professor in psychology Sian Beilock, has shown the brain can work to sabotage performance, often in pressure-filled situations that deplete brain power critical to many everyday activities.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Stress for Success.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: college classroom sound)"Ok, listen up, 'cause there's going to be a test." Those words can send students everywhere into a panic. It seems for some, no matter how much they've studied, the stress of the test can get the best of them -- while others appear to thrive on it.

Sian Beilock (see-on bye-lock) and her research team at the University of Chicago gave 73 undergrads a stressful math test and measured two things: the students' working memory, how well they temporarily manage and store information and their level of math anxiety -- or fear about doing math. (Sweaty palms anyone?)

(Audio: Sian Beilock)"We have a variety of brain and body reactions under pressure in stressful situations but what our research shows is that it's not so much about these bodily reactions, but how you interpret them whether you interpret them as a sign you're going to succeed, or a sign that you're ready for failure that predicts whether you thrive or dive in the pressure-filled situation."

The research honed in on cortisol[1], "the stress hormone." If you're a student with a large working memory but with a fear of math, rising cortisol levels can lead you to choke. No fear of math? The more your cortisol goes up, the more your test score might, too. So change your perspective, and you might just change your grade. One caveat: you still have to know the material -- a point worth "stressing."

The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.


[1] cortisol
腎上腺皮質素 An adrenal-cortex hormone. For more information, please refer to the following links:

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