Stress Impairs Memory - But Here’s a Way to Make Your Memory More Anxiety-Proof

Stress Impairs Memory - But Here’s a Way to Make Your Memory More Anxiety-Proof

Arts August 07, 2018 / By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
Stress Impairs Memory - But Here’s a Way to Make Your Memory More Anxiety-Proof

Memory slips under pressure might feel inevitable, but research suggests that different ways of practicing could make our memory more pressure-proof.

I took piano lessons for several years as a child. But I didn’t get very far because I had a rather peculiar approach to learning.

Due to my principled objection to the existence of other clefs, I never actually learned bass clef. Anytime I got a new piece, I just memorized the left hand, and played off the music while looking at the treble clef.

I know…pretty ridiculous in hindsight.

But you know the saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”? Well, I was reminded of my bass clef aversion recently when listening to my daughter practice the piano. Unlike me, she can read both clefs. But in an interesting twist, she seems to have an objection to looking at the music at all, preferring to keep poking around for the right notes by ear.

Imagine giving a beginning hunt-and-peck typist this blank keyboard (isn’t that the awesomest thing ever?), and you’ll have a pretty good idea what we experience in our living room every day.

Needless to say, it drives my wife - a pianist - crazy. Whom I’ll often hear shouting “LOOK AT THE MUSIC!!!” from various corners of our apartment.

But then I read a study recently which made me wonder if our little one is actually onto something.

Huh?! What could that possibly be?

Stress and memory

There’s a pretty robust literature which shows that stress disrupts our memory. Whether it’s a math test or public speech or performance, we tend to forget things under pressure.

But a team of researchers started wondering…are such memory issues inevitable? Or might there be a way to make our memory more stress-resistant?

Observing that most previous studies haven’t been especially concerned with what specific memorization strategies their participants used, they put together a study to dig a little deeper.

Nouns and Photos

120 participants were presented with a list of 30 nouns to memorize.

Half (60) of the participants then re-studied the 30 nouns. Meanwhile, the other half engaged in retrieval practice – asked to recall as many items as they could remember.

30 photos

Then everyone was presented with a collection of 30 photos.

Once again, the study group re-studied the 30 photos, while the retrieval group was asked to recall as many photos as they could.

30 nouns & 30 photos

Then, the study group re-studied both the list of nouns and the photos, while the retrieval group attempted to recall as many words and images as they could.

A short distraction…

Finally, after a short distractor task, the study group re-studied all 60 items one last time, while the retrieval group attempted a final recall of as many items as possible.

So to be clear, the study group had 3 additional study sessions of the material, while the retrieval group had 0 traditional “study” sessions but instead were tested on their recall of the original presentation of the words and pictures.

On paper, that seems like an awfully lopsided advantage of study time for the study group, but let’s see what happened when they went back to the lab 24 hours later for a test…

24 hours later…

When participants returned to the lab for testing, half of them – 30 from the study group, and 30 from the retrieval group – were asked to give a speech and solve math problems in front of 2 judges and 3 peers (to make them anxious and increase their stress levels).

Five minutes into this stressful task, they were asked to recall either the words or pictures that they learned the previous day. Twenty minutes later – which is about when the stress hormone cortisol reaches its peak – they were asked to recall whichever items they weren’t tested on in their first test.

And to see what performance would look like when not stressed, the other 60 participants took the same memory tests, also at 5 and 25 minutes, but while completing a non-stressful task.

What happened?

As you can imagine, stress did have an effect on memory – but only for those who studied in the traditional way.

The study group did indeed do worse on the memory test when stressed (7 items recalled when stressed vs. 8.7 items recalled when not stressed). But the participants who engaged in retrieval practice, seemed unaffected by stress. Their performance under stress (11.1 items recalled) was essentially indistinguishable from their fellow retrieval practicers who were not stressed (10.3 items recalled).

Even more impressive, the participants in the retrieval group who took the test while stressed (11.1) outperformed the participants in the study group who took the test while not stressed (8.7).

In other words, the retrieval group who did their recall test in the worst-case scenario, outperformed the study group which did their recall test in the best-case scenario.

How did this happen?

The authors cite a convergence of research, from neuroscience to cognitive theory, noting that retrieval practice seems to strengthen memory by creating multiple pathways to retrieval. Sort of like if Hansel and Gretel had left not just a trail of breadcrumbs, but also a trail of pebbles, a string tied to a tree at the entry of the forest, and used a map and GPS too.

The idea being, more retrieval attempts results in a greater number of distinct ways to access the same information.

What does retrieval practice look like for musicians?

Sure, we could all probably do more run-throughs, record ourselves more often, and so on. But I think retrieval practice could also represent a fundamentally different approach to learning. Where efforts to play from memory are baked into the learning process from the very beginning.

When I was a kid, memory was something I never thought about until I had gotten a piece totally learned. I saw it as a task to engage in during the “polishing” stage of learning a piece, to get it ready for performance. But how might our approach change if we saw memorization as an integral part of learning a piece from Day 1? Not as some add-on at the end of the learning process?

I know some musicians who do this. Who spend the first week or so “learning” a piece so that they can play it from memory, however imperfectly and haltingly, from a very early stage. And a 2007 study, which follows a concert pianist as she learns Debussy’s Clair de Lune, found that a deliberate effort was made to emphasize memory from the very beginning, even if it meant “muddling” along in a start-and-stop-and-pause-and-think kind of way at the outset.

This was a completely foreign idea to me, but in light of this study, is starting to make a lot of sense.

So is my daughter really onto something? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, maybe we will have to chill out a bit and let her practice in peace…

A version of this article originally appeared at The Bulletproof Musician.

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