by Susan Andrews, PhD
Stress Inhibits Spatial Perception
For years, stress was considered to contribute mostly to psychosomatic-type illnesses. Then, slowly the research began to accumulate that indicates stress is not simply one of those “mental” or “emotional” problems. Stress is making headlines now in ways that really seems to contribute to what we now call the mind-body connection. Stress has even been shown to be passed from one generation to the next by the mechanism of a chronically non-stress resilient woman who is pregnant. Her unborn child will come into the world as not as able to recover easily in stressful situations as children whose moms are less stressed and possibly more stress-resilient. Cortisol has been tagged as one of the mechanisms responsible for how stress can have lasting effects on the body.
Today, I am reporting on research(1) conducted at the Collaborative Research Center 874 at the Ruhr-UniversitaetBochum showing that stress can interfere with how we see and interpret visual-spatial information. Neuroscientists at the Collaborative Research Center 874 compared the findings of stressed participants to unstressed (the control group) participants in how stress affected their perception of scenes and faces (complex spatial information).
Earlier work out of the Collaborative Research Center 874 was able to show how the release of the stress hormone cortisol can influence long-term memory in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is also involved in the perception of scenes. Discrimination of faces was included in the study as faces are processed in the adjacent region of the temporal lobes.
The cold-pressor test was used to stress young men by having them immerse one of their hands in ice water for up to three minutes while being obviously filmed by a female researcher. This is a well-known method of establishing stress in research.
The stressed participants did less well in the discrimination of complex scenes than the non- stressed participants. However, there was no effect of the stress-induced cortisol on the participants’ ability to discriminate faces. This was the predicted outcome of the study. They reasoned that stress affects the hippocampus in the area of memory and complex spatial perception, but stress/cortisol does not also affect the workings of the adjacent temporal lobe at least as regards the perception of faces.
Further research was planned to look into the activity patterns of the hippocampus when it is under stress using MRI technology.