Sometimes you just have to let friends go.
Sometimes you just have to let friends go.
It’s no secret that stress increases your susceptibility to health problems, and it also impacts your ability to solve problems and be creative. But methods to prevent associated risks and effects have been less clear – until now.
Published in PLOS ONE, new research from Carnegie Mellon University provides the first evidence that self-affirmation can protect against the damaging effects of stress on problem-solving performance. Understanding that self-affirmation – the process of identifying and focusing on one’s most important values – boosts stressed individuals’ problem-solving abilities will help guide future research and the development of educational interventions.
“An emerging set of published studies suggest that a brief self-affirmation activity at the beginning of a school term can boost academic grade-point averages in underperforming kids at the end of the semester. This new work suggests a mechanism for these studies, showing self-affirmation effects on actual problem-solving performance under pressure,” said J. David Creswell, assistant professor of psychology in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Because previous research indicated that self-affirmation may be an effective stress management approach, Creswell and his research team had college students rank-order a set of values (e.g., art, business, family and friends) in terms of their personal importance, and indicate their levels of chronic stress. Participants randomly assigned to a self-affirmation condition were asked to write a couple of sentences about why their number one ranked value was important (a standard self-affirmation exercise). All participants then had to complete a challenging problem-solving task under time pressure, which required creativity in order to generate correct solutions.
The results showed that participants who were under high levels of chronic stress during the past month had impaired problem-solving performance. In fact, they solved about 50 percent fewer problems in the task. But notably, this effect was qualified by whether participants had an opportunity to first complete the self-affirmation activity. Specifically, a brief self-affirmation was effective in eliminating the deleterious effects of chronic stress on problem-solving performance, such that chronically stressed self-affirmed participants performed under pressure at the same level as participants with low chronic stress levels.
“People under high stress can foster better problem-solving simply by taking a moment beforehand to think about something that is important to them,” Creswell said. “It’s an easy-to-use and portable strategy you can roll out before you enter that high pressure performance situation.
You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have. ― Maya Angelou
“Come back to the heartbeat, the pulse, the rhythm we all walk to, regardless of nation or color. Come back to the breath – inhale, take the world deep into your lungs; exhale, give yourself back fully. This is what the body says: release the peace that lives within your skin.” Gayle Brandeis from, The Body Politic of Peace
A team of neuroscientists at the University of Toronto in Canada has discovered a reason why we often struggle to remember small details of past experiences.
Many events in our lives resemble experiences we have had before, without being identical to them.
Whenever you attend a party, for example, you may well take along a gift, such as a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates, but the gift will differ on each occasion.
Researchers believe that as our memories for such events become older, the incidental details unique to each event (such as the identity of the gift) are mostly forgotten.
However, the common underlying patterns (what parties are like in general) are retained. This allows us to accumulate knowledge to guide our behavior in similar situations in the future.
Studies in rodents and people have shown that a region of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) stores long-term memories about experiences.
But to what extent do neurons in this region represent abstract generalized knowledge as opposed to the specific incidental details?
“Memories of recent experiences are rich in incidental detail but, with time, the brain is thought to extract important information that is common across various past experiences,” said Dr. Kaori Takehara-Nishiuchi, senior author of the study.
“We predicted that groups of neurons in the mPFC build representations of this information over the period when long-term memory consolidation is known to take place, and that this information has a larger representation in the brain than the smaller details.”
To test their prediction, Dr. Takehara-Nishiuchi and her colleagues studied how two different memories with overlapping associative features are coded by neuron groups in the mPFC of rat brains, and how these codes change over time.
Rats were given two experiences with an interval between each: one involving a light and tone stimulus, and the other involving a physical stimulus. This gave them two memories that shared a common stimulus relationship.
The researchers then tracked the neuron activity in the animals’ brains from the first day of learning to four weeks following their experiences.
“This experiment revealed that groups of neurons in the mPFC initially encode both the unique and shared features of the stimuli in a similar way,” said Mark Morrissey, first author on the study.
“However, over the course of a month, the coding becomes more sensitive to the shared features and less sensitive to the unique features, which become lost.”
Further experiments also revealed that the brain can adapt the general knowledge gained from multiple experiences immediately to a new situation.
“This goes some way to answering the long-standing question of whether the formation of generalized memory is simply a result of the brain’s network ‘forgetting’ incidental features,” Morrissey said.
“On the contrary, we show that groups of neurons develop coding to store shared information from different experiences while, seemingly independently, losing selectivity for irrelevant details.”
“The unique coding property of the mPFC identified in the study may support its role in the formation, maintenance, and updating of associative knowledge structures that help support flexible and adaptive behavior in rats and other animals,” he said.