How stress stops your shot at strategy
Ever been so stressed you felt like a “chicken with its head cut off?” Or maybe a rat frazzled by a computerized competitor? Even if you’re not so familiar with the latter idea, you’ve probably experienced a similar feeling of helpless panic, wherein you feel like you have no idea how to solve a problem, so you just try out anything as a sort of last resort. It’s that feeling that researchers recently isolated, and manipulated, via stress hormones in rats.
Successful strategies vs. harried helplessness
The researchers first distinguished between strategic thinking and what they called helpless thinking. Strategic thinking is when you are able to pay attention to details and feedback to improve your success at a task. In this case, rats were pitted against computerized competitors for treats. The better they learned the competitors’ patterns, the more treats they were able to win.
The researchers then introduced a tougher competitor, designed to stress the rats so that they were no longer thinking strategically. The seemingly unbeatable opponent caused the rats to switch to helpless thinking, where they would try anything, just in case they got lucky. This tactic can sometimes help discover a novel solution to a problem, but in this case the rats were unable to appreciate any gains or clues towards success. Even when a more predictable opponent was later introduced, that a strategically-minded rat would surely be able to beat, the helpless rats simply continued their panicked behavior.
Suppressing the stress in the ACC
The key to all this seems to be the amount of stress the rats were experiencing, particularly in their anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC. The more stressed the rat, the more likely they were to be stuck in helpless thinking. But when researchers suppressed the stress hormone norepinephrine in the rats’ ACC, the rats were able to switch back to strategic thinking and piece together more winning tactics.
So the idea that we can be so stressed that we “can’t think straight” is probably more accurate that you might think. The next time something begins to feel overwhelming, lowering your stress levels is probably the best strategy.
Source: When You Get Stuck Guessing, Relieve Stress by Jenni Laidman, Scientific American