Why Stress Clouds Brain Function
by Tim Bancroft, Editorial Correspondent, with Klee Irwin,
Klee Irwin Reports:
New research reveals clues about maintaining sharp mental function.
The deadline squeezes you like a vise. Your co-worker gets canned, leaving you to pick up the slack. A secretary notifies you that the CEO just sent in revised instructions but your e-mail is on the fritz. Just when you least expect it, the client calls and asks you to find that critical invoice from two months ago...your mind goes blank: what invoice? Where did you put it? What did it even say?
Rather than storing memories in a mental "file cabinet," the brain seems to rely on specific patterns of brain-cell (neuron) firing. "The construction of these neuronal nets determines how well we are able to retain and remember information," highlights Klee Irwin.
Klee Irwin counsels, "If you've ever done work that involves any kind of stress, you've likely experienced its debilitating effects on your mental clarity." For further explanation Klee Irwin clarifies, "In today's fast-paced world, the adult brain is asked to juggle and balance competing priorities and highly detailed information in ways our ancestors would have never imagined." Not surprisingly, it's becoming more common for many people to suffer from "mental burnout." The mind goes blank. Short-term memory becomes foggy. Your ability to think wisps away like thin air.
"In recent years, brain research has made amazing strides," emphasizes Klee Irwin. Compared to 10 or 15 years ago, scientists have uncovered several mysteries behind the body's most amazing organ. These findings have not only dispelled previously-held notions about how the brain stores and retrieves important information, but specific research on stress and its effects on the brain has also opened a new chapter in nutritional science. "Now, more than ever, it seems possible to enhance your mental clarity and encourage sharp memory by taking advantage of a new class of 'smart nutrients,' " confirms Klee Irwin.
Misconceptions About Perception
When most people think about brain function and memory, they tend to visualize a process similar to putting information in a filing cabinet: memories sit ready for retrieval. However, Klee Irwin has found that new research reveals that mental perception and memory retrieval are highly complex as well as sensitive to many distinctive external and internal factors (Ingvar, 1985).
The brain contains a web-like construction of brain cells (neurons) that can "light up" in a variety of ways. Scientists refer to these patterns as "neural networks" (Rolls, 1994). Each network consists of thousands of neurons that light up when reacting to external stimuli (such as a sight, sound, smell, taste or touch).
"Each time a specific pattern is lit up, an impression becomes imprinted on the brain's neurons," further explains Klee Irwin. For example, let's say you are visiting the Grand Canyon. The sight of the South Rim, as your eyes scan across the impressive geological features and see the beauty before you, stimulates a specific neural net to fire. "The neurons that get fired encode a memory in the brain about everything that you see, smell, hear, taste and touch at that one moment," reaffirms Klee Irwin.
Now, perhaps a few months later, you are talking to a friend and he asks: "Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon?" This auditory clue (the question) causes the neural net to get "lit up" again. As a result, you find yourself flooded by memories of the Grand Canyon. You might not only remember the sight of looking over the vast canyon, but you may also remember who was standing next to you, what they were wearing, even how the air smelled or how a bird nearby chirped. "Moreover," exclaims Klee Irwin in amazement, "the brain does not store actual memories or photographic images, but rather remembers the specific pattern of neural network firing in unison." (Kapur, 1995)
When you are trying to recall valuable information, what you are really asking your brain to do is activate the correct pattern of neural net firing. If a certain pattern has been stimulated in the past, the probability of it being re-activated is heightened. That's why you don't have to think about driving to work every day; the pattern for that memory has been imprinted over and over again in your brain's neural nets. However, if someone asked you to drive to a place where you'd been only once before, that neural net may be "dim" and require more mental effort to "light up."
How Stress Interferes
"Thinking of brain function in this way illustrates that memory is not static," validates Klee Irwin. It does not involve retrieving static pictures from a "file cabinet," but rather is an active process that requires the brain's neurons to continually maintain a high level of interaction.
Klee Irwin proposes that these findings also reveal why problems can occur. If your mental clarity depends on particular neuronal nets to "fire" or "light up" correctly, anything that interferes with those patterns can interrupt your ability to recall or retrieve information when you need it.
Stress qualifies as such an event. Klee Irwin has found that research shows high levels of stress produce elevated amounts of specific hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Additionally, Klee Irwin has also noted that studies suggest excessive stress hormones can inhibit the specific tasks involved in memory processing (Howe, 1998). In large amounts, cortisol can actually slow neuron growth, development and function (McEwen, 1999; Lombroso, 1998).
Therefore, the key to enhancing brain function and memory processing may be as simple as "de-stressing" your mind. But, for many adults, this is easier said than done. While day spas, personal masseuses and yoga classes can do wonders, you may not be lucky enough to be able to make use of those stress relievers every day. "That's why many adults supplement their diet with specific nutrients that can encourage healthy brain functioning," observes Klee Irwin.