Stress selectively and lastingly promotes learning of context-related high arousing information

Tom Smeets, Oliver T. Wolf, Timo Giesbrecht, Kevin Sijstermans, Sebastian Telgen, Marian Joels

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

87 Citations (Scopus)


The secretion of adrenal stress hormones in response to acute stress is known to affect learning and memory, particularly for emotionally arousing memory material. Here, we investigated whether stress-induced modulation of learning and memory performance depends on (i) the conceptual relatedness between the material to be learned/remembered and the stressor and (ii) the timing of stress exposure versus learning phase. Participants learned stressor-related and stressor-unrelated words of varying arousal 1h prior to, immediately following, or 2h after exposure to the Trier Social Stress Test (all groups n=16). Twenty-four hours later, delayed free recall was assessed. Cortisol and alpha-amylase were sampled to evaluate if concurrent stress-induced raised glucocorticoid levels and high adrenergic activity are implicated in modulating learning performance. Our results demonstrate that immediate and delayed post-stress learning selectively enhanced the learning and delayed recall of stressor-related high arousing words. This enhancing effect was strongly associated with concurrent stress-induced cortisol and sympathetic activity. Our data suggest that when to-be-learned information is conceptually related to a stressor and considered important (i.e., arousing) by the individual, learning under stressful circumstances results in improved memorability afterwards.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1152-1161
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes


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