Brain Research


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Stress - a Land Mine for the Brain

by Dr. Kathie F. Nunley

Stress is more than just uncomfortable, it's dangerous to the mind and body. In addition to increasing health problems, chronic stress causes problems with our memory systems, blood pressure, problem solving skills, and thought processes in that decision-making region of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex.


Although some teachers feel stress is an inevitable part of the education process, research shows it can actually undermine the learning process. Stress in the classroom or elsewhere, releases a chemical called TMT* into the brain. TMT disrupts working memory and reduces a person's desire to explore new ideas and creatively solve problems. While students under stress will work "harder," the quality of the work decreases. The higher the stress, the worse the results. Short term memory is crippled, the student has a difficult time retrieving previous information from memory and decision making ability decreases.


Obviously, we wouldn't want to remove all stress from life, as a small amount can help keep arousal levels high enough to complete a task. But large amounts, particularly when the stress causes accompanying feelings of fear and anxiety, are dangerous and work against the learning process.


Be careful in the classroom. A little excitement and encouragement built on a strong foundation of trust and care can help build enthusiasm for doing well. An environment perceived as intimidating, frightening and overwhelming can shut the learning process down.


Recently while visiting a graphic design class, I saw a poster on the door to the special effects lab that read "don't make a garlic sandwich." I love that thought. It helps remind us that some things are only good in very small quantities.


Kathie F. Nunley is an educational psychologist, author, researcher and speaker living in southern New Hampshire. Developer of the Layered Curriculum method of instruction, Dr. Nunley has authored several books and articles on teaching in mixed-ability classrooms and other problems facing today's teachers. Full references and additional teaching and parental tips are available at: Email her at:


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