Have you ever walked into an exam, sat down and got all of your equipment out on the desk and then completely forgotten everything you have been revising for weeks? The panic takes hold and you feel like crawling under the desk in shame.
The ironic thing about this is that this panic is exactly what is stopping you to remember all those long and coffee addled revision hours. When people are exposed to a stressful situation there is a natural instinct to block that situation from your memory in case it causes you long term trauma.
This was found to be the case in the study performed by Bremner and Narayan, 1998 who looked at children who had been abused as well as adult war veterans who were suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Even more interestingly though these individuals had suffered a long term defecit in all their memory (not just the stressful events) and had increased their aging rate.
There are also circumstances when a one off stressful event can have an impact on your memory of that event. A common example of this happening can be eye witness testimony in criminal cases. The study by Deffenbacher et al, 2004 found that historically victims or witnesses’ of crime recall less accurate information when exposed to a stressful situation.
Studies performed on rats have also backed up the claims that stress can have a detrimental affect on memory. Diamond et al, 1999 did an experiment where rats were put in to a maze to remember the way around and then later on after being either put in a non stressful condition (their cage) for half an hour or near a cat for half an hour they were put back in the maze.
Interestingly the results showed that they didn’t have a problem in either condition if it was an easy maze to remember but if it was a more challenging maze then they had more difficulty if they were part of the stressful condition.
This just shows that stress can have an effect on memory and for things which are complicated like remembering a speech or revision for an exam then stress can play a significant part in your recall.