WorldNgayon — Stress diminishes our abilities to predict new dangers, a new study finds.
Unlike the conventional belief, stress sharpens our ability to detect and adjust to the changing sources of threats. However, according to Candace Raio, a postdoctoral researcher at New York University and lead author of the Study, says that “Stress does not always increase perceptions of danger in the environment, as is often assumed.” In fact, our study shows that when a person is under stress conditions, it pay less attention to changes in the environment, which potentially increasing the risk for ignoring new sources of threat.” As a result, stress reduces the flexibility of a person’s responses to threats, and will impair its ability to prediction a potentially dangerous circumstances, she added.
Although learning to predict threats from the environment is critical to survival, study authors noted that flexibility is equally important in order to control the persons responses when new sources of threat break out—for instance, an oncoming out-of-control car that may bump you at any moment requires quick responses and flexibility.
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To test the person’s ability to learn flexibly as a response to threat, under stressful conditions, the study conducted a series of experiments that focuses on “Pavlovian threat-conditioning.” Here, the subjects viewed images on a computer screen. Some images are associated with a mild electric wrist-shock, serving as a “threat cue,” while other images have none “safe cue.”
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Participants also underwent laboratory procedure designed to induce stress and repeat the threat-conditioning procedures with images and mild electric shock but with reverse cue outcomes. The “threat cue” has no electric shock while “safe cue” has. While the subjects were viewing the images, the researchers collected physiological arousal responses to measure their individuals anticipated outcome on each cue.
The researchers then applied a computational learning model to further understand how stress affects flexibility in decision making. This analysis revealed a learning deficit for the subjects put under the stress condition—specifically, stress affected an attentional signal “associability”—that participants used to update the cue associations. In short, this resulted in a slower rate of learning.
Authors of this study include, Elizabeth Phelps, Catherine Hartley in collaboration with Jian Li, a scientist at Peking University.