Element 31:

Stress – the Death of Learning

“Up until very recently it was believed that stress could only increase our ability to learn… But the research is forcing brain based educators to conclude that the authortian learning systems favored by most corporate and scholastic institutions may in themselves produce so much stress that not only is effective learning and creativity compromised but so too the capacities for big-picture thinking, future planning and empathy.”
– JW Wilson, Advanced Learning Institute

unmotivatedwoman[1]Although science has shown that the greatest facilitator of learning and memory is relaxed mental states (see “The Incubation Stage of Learning” and “Sleep – the Most Powerful Incubation Phase“), new research is now uncovering a very disturbing fact: The greatest inhibitor of long-term memory formation is the opposite of relaxed states – stress. Not just some annoying side effect of our modern world, stress can affect learning and memory by producing devastating changes in your body that can make you sick as well as kill you; producing dramatic changes in your brain that can wipe out brain cells; causing the connections between your neurons to wither and die; generating neural tangles; and shifting the blood flow in your brain so that under stress you act more like your animal and reptile cousins than an empathetic human being. Considering that most of us feel that we are under huge amounts of stress in our lives, this turns out to be a very disquieting discovery.

Up until very recently it was believed that stress could only increase our ability to learn and be creative. This is the philosophy behind getting students to scurry from 45-minute to 45-minute cram-for-test sessions, forcing medical residents to work over 80 hours a week, and why corporations expect employees to learn and perform at peak levels while burning the candle at both ends. But the research into the effects of stress on learning is forcing brain-based educators to conclude that the systems favored by most institutions may in themselves produce so much stress that not only is effective learning and creativity compromised but so too the capacities for big-picture thinking, future planning, and compassion. The result is scholastic, government, and corporate institutions are filled not with joyful, productive, creative, and compassionate learners but with disgruntled individuals who have behavioral problems and are as unhappy and uninspired as Sisyphus, the Greek god who spent his life unsuccessfully trying to push a huge stone to the top of an imposing mountain.

Read on to learn more about why stress is the death of learning

Studies Show Stress’ Negative Impacts on Memory and Intelligence

The man who gave the world the conditioned response was also one of the first researchers to recognize the profound negative influence that stress has on the learning process. In 1924, during a major Leningrad flood, water surged high into Ivan Pavlov’s laboratory. The terrified dogs that Pavlov had spent weeks and months conditioning were trapped in their cages and had to paddle for their lives with their noses just barely above the high-water mark. After these animals were rescued, Pavlov was shocked to find that the stress of the flood had produced such profound changes in these animals’ brains that they had unlearned the conditioned responses he had worked so hard to implant!

brokenpencil[1]Recent research confirms Pavlov’s findings. Over 125 studies of more than 36,000 individuals have shown conclusively that the more stress you are under, the lower your memory performance, no matter how it is measured – by grade point average, IQ, or other forms of achievement tests. Dr. Bernard Brown of Georgetown University, studying over 4,000 students, found increased stress cut IQ scores by 14 percent. Researcher John Hunsley reports that the amount of stress you feel while taking a test directly predicts how poorly you will do on it. A study of 1,790 individuals training to be air traffic controllers showed that, even though these individuals had superior IQs, high stress disrupted their abilities to score well on air traffic tests. In a McGill University study, researchers checked stress hormone levels of 130 volunteers and found that high amounts of the stress hormone cortisol correlated with inhibited memory and attention. A survey of stressed and maltreated children showed that the rate for having to repeat the first grade was an incredibly sad 65 percent. These poor stressed-out kids just could not think or learn! Learning expert Gordon Stokes says, “80 percent of learning difficulties are related to stress, remove the stress and you remove the difficulties.”

There are nine main reasons that excessive stress kills learning:

  1. Stress can atrophy and wither neural connections.
  2. Stress can wipe out memory by literally killing neurons.
  3. Excessive amounts of stress inhibit the creation of new brain cells.
  4. Stress negatively affects specialized neurons called glial cells, inhibiting them from transporting nutrients, cleaning up neuron waste, and making the insulation that surrounds neural wiring.
  5. Stress compromises learning by promoting the negative expression of specific genes, resulting in the creation of neural tangles, the obstruction of working memory function, and a propensity to engage in reckless behaviors.
  6. Stress can cause neurochemical reactions in the brain, producing neural static, which garbles the brain’s ability to effectively prioritize information for inclusion into working memory.
  7. Stress can make you sick and, as we all know, you can’t learn if you don’t feel well.
  8. Stress destroys the brain’s ability to effectively drop into the incubation states (see “The Incubation Stage of Learning” and “Sleep – the Most Powerful Incubation Phase of Learning“).
  9. Stress causes a shift in neural energy away from our most flexible and evolved neural structures to our most fixed and least-evolved. This neurological “downshift” not only wipes out our learning and creative abilities but also negatively affects our capacities for big-picture thinking and planning for the future, as well as deep empathy and compassion for others. It also increases impulsivity, which leads to the high number of behavioral problems we are seeing in our institutions.

In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:

That research is revealing the ugly and disquieting fact that those of us who experience stress for extended periods may never be the same again biologically.

That the history of the word “stress” goes back to Walter Cannon, who in the 1920s was credited with coming up with this term to describe the fight-or-flee response you experience when you perceive threatening stimuli and your blood flow shifts from your internal organs to your large muscle groups.


That stress takes two routes: (1) the cortisol-hormone-stress route that “preheats” the body and mind, getting them ready for the (2) sympathetic-nerve-stress system to launch the powerful physical actions needed to fight or flee.

That comprehending how the cortisol-hormone-stress route affects the body and brain is instrumental in grasping how excess stress compromises learning and creativity.

That, when you are under stress, the cortisol-hormone system causes your heart to race, your blood pressure to rise, your glucose utilization to increase, your breathing to accelerate, your oxygen consumption to increase, your blood flow to shift and, so that all this metabolic activity won’t overheat you, makes you sweat.

That, at the same time the cortisol-hormone-stress system is altering your body chemistry, it is also altering your brain chemistry so that your attention will be riveted on what is threatening you.

That evolution did not design the cortisol-hormone-stress response to be switched on and revving up our bodies and minds for extended periods of time.

How the stress of modern life can keep your cortisol-stress response on overdrive for hours, days, weeks, months, and even years, thus causing profound learning and memory disruption.

How “psychological-intellectual stressors,” that is, non-life-threatening, high-anxiety producing stimuli, such as unhappy relationships, financial difficulties, and unsatisfying jobs, can keep the cortisol-stress response stuck in overdrive almost indefinitely.

How the more control you have over a situation, the less the cortisol-stress response will be activated; and, conversely, the less control you feel you have in your life, the more the cortisol-stress response will be activated.

How to get more “control” over your cortisol-stress response, so that your abilities to learn, remember and be creative will increase.

That the main reason overly authoritarian systems are not considered by brain-based educators to be the most-effective learning environments is because they take control from learners.

How in the 1930s endocrinologist Hans Selye’s mishandling of mice allowed him to advertently discover that disease and stress were linked.

Why stress inhibits the incubation stage of learning.

How the cortisol-stress response keeps us locked in hyperactive beta brain wave states.


How a virtual Pandora’s box of disorders has been linked to stress and excess cortisol production, including diabetes, asthma attacks, heart disease, strokes, kidney disease, migraine headaches, cancer hypertension, backaches, muscle tension, skin ailments, insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, addiction, anxiety attacks, and depression.

Why the cortisol-stress response is seen as major factor in the “fat” epidemic sweeping the country.

How stress can stunt your growth.

How stress-induced diseases compromise your ability to learn and be creative. How stress spoils your sexual performance.

How, when you are under stress for extended periods of time, cortisol and the accompanying overactivity of norepinephrine has the same effect on the brain as too much caffeine or amphetamine drugs, locking it in hyper-vigilant anxious states.

That you can feel exhausted when you are under stress because the cortisol-stress response reduces your brain’s ability to utilize its main fuel source-glucose.


How stress can damage your ability to learn by actually shriveling your hippocampus, a center of working memory.

Why the longer the stress response is activated, the greater the learning and memory disruption.

That research shows that, after only a few weeks of exposure to excess cortisol levels, connections between neurons called dendrites begin to shrivel and atrophy just as if someone had poured acid over them.

How extended exposure to stress and cortisol can literally kill neurons in your brain by causing them to swell, destroying genetic controls, producing enzymes that devour their supportive structure and manufacturing caustic molecules which tear away at membrane walls.

How stress can inhibit your ability to learn by inhibiting new neurons from being produced.

How in a bizarre twist of evolutionary fate, the brain structure that is most easily destroyed by cortisol is also the brain structure most responsible for its regulation!

That, when we are under stress for too long, the C-fos gene clicks into high gear, compromising our thinking and learning by causing the overproduction of so much protein that we can develop tangles in our dendrital branches.

That high cortisol levels can reset our genetic switches, not only severely inhibiting learning and memory but also causing and exacerbating aggression, depression, manic episodes, and seizures.

How stress burns off the receptor sites that help keep us calm and relaxed.

How excessive stress is devastating to the young child’s brain because it can impede the super windows of learning opportunity from opening and closing according to plan (see “Windows of Super Learning Opportunity“).


How high stress levels can compromise your learning and memory by creating what feels like electrical static in your brain.

How this neural static makes you forget what to say when you are giving a speech or are in the middle of an argument.

How high stress decreases your brain’s major impulse modulator serotonin, which, in turn, can increase your levels of anger and aggression.

How chronically low levels of serotonin have been linked to the reason prisoners habitually act out in socially unacceptable ways.

That the reason depressed people can commit the unthinkable act of suicide is because their high cortisol levels have driven serotonin levels so low that suicide seems like a rational act.


How excess stress compromises learning because it creates what is referred to as a neurological downshift.

That the term downshift is used to describe the phenomenon that occurs when, under excessive stress, the blood flow and energy in your brain shifts from the upper and most-evolved brain centers to your least-evolved lower brain centers.

How evolutionary biologists believe that we experience downshifting because, when we are under stress, the brain prefers behavior patterns that have been proven tried and true from the time reptiles first crawled out of the primordial ooze 350 million years ago.

Why you cannot learn effectively or behave responsibility if a stress-induced downshift is making you think more like a lizard than a human.

Why many experts believe downshifting is the reason eyewitnesses are so notoriously inept at identifying details at a crime scene.

How downshifting limits your ability to access what you have previously learned and stored in your long-term memory banks.

Why downshifting is the reason we have difficulty trying to learn new information when someone is pressuring us to do so.

Why, long after your have been in an argument with someone, you can finally think of all the things you could have said – but didn’t!

How many individuals labeled as “slow” by intelligence tests are really quite bright. The problem for them is test anxiety, which causes their brains to downshift, limiting access to previously stored information.

How, because of downshifting, one of our country’s leading experts on intelligence, did so poorly on IQ tests as child.

How a stress-induced downshift compromises your most human attributes such as insight, self awareness, metaphor formation, judgment, compassion, systems thinking, future planning, enhanced social skills, and the mediation of your raw instinctual emotions.

How, because of downshifting, when under stress even the most mild-mannered can do atrocious things, like commit road rage or carry out an office or school shooting.

How the cortisol-induced downshift may be one of the primary reasons we see so much deception and self-centeredness on the part of many corporate executives.

How defense attorneys may try to use the downshift as a neurological excuse for the harmful behavior of their clients.

How our existing scholastic and corporate institutions keep many students and workers in a constant downshifted state.

Why institutional environments that keep people in downshifted states can expect these people to act in “reptilian” ways.

Why only a downshifted society could ever conceptualize that the best resolution to a conflict is to have people strap sticks of dynamite onto their bodies, step on buses, and kill themselves and large numbers of innocent young children.

Why the world would do better to spend billions, not on bullets, but on ways to upshift stressed populations to their higher and more evolved brain centers so they may generate creative and peaceful solutions to their plights.

How to get people to alter their behaviors, accelerate their speed of learning, and become more creative by upshifting to their most evolved, compassionate and human brain centers.

To help you understand more about how stress hurts learning, click on other Elements:

The Environment Is Everything to Increasing Your Adaptability / Intelligence Factor

Why Experience Beats Linguistic Learning Every Time

Memory Is Not an Event: The Four Stages of Learning

The Incubation Stage of Learning

Sleep – the Most Powerful Incubation Stage of Learning

The Grinches Who Stole Experience From Our Learning Institutions