Thinking and decision making under stress
General anatomical information
Once the sensory organs perceive information they send it via nerves to part of the brain called thalamus (see a scheme) - part of the brain which deals with sensory perceptions. Thalamus transmits the information to the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is a large layer of brain tissue, "enfolding" the rest of the brain. Cerebral cortex is where the process of conscious thinking and decision making happens. There information is interpreted, filtered and understood. The cerebral cortex is where "becoming conscious of reality" happens, but it also processes large quantity of information, without us being aware. The cerebral cortex "judges" which information can be dealt with automatically, without our awareness and which needs to be consciously assessed.
The limbic system is stimulated next by the cerebral cortex. The limbic system is of equal importance to our conscious life - it is responsible for emotions, feelings, character traits and behaviour. Without it we will be just a sophisticated brand of computers - emotionless, with no feelings and no personality. The limbic system sends signals back to the thalamus, which this time arouses the hypothalamus to secrete neurohormones which will stimulate the pituitary gland and the stress reaction will begin.
In very rare cases of hyperstress the thalamus may send signals directly to the hypothalamus and trigger the stress reaction without the participation of the cortex and the following stimulation of the limbic system.
Of course many other centres of the brain take part, the above mentioned are only those with fundamental importance to brain functioning in general.
After the brain perceives and estimates the stressor, it triggers automatically the stress reaction and soon receives feedback from the organism, about the changes in its metabolism.
Feedback to the brain can be a secondary stressor, with much greater impact than the initial one. A perfect example would be that of a person who tries to execute a defensive, in the case of stress physical task and his body rejecting to follow the orders of mind. Hardly there is a secondary stressor, which causes so much panic, than the awareness of your body incapable of doing what your mind wants.
Decision making under stress (picture monkey)
Under great stress the process of thinking is usually characterized by loss of concentration, inability to perceive new information(to learn), hampered short-term memory, lack of initial planning of your actions, hasty decision making. The physiological explanation of the above symptoms is still based primarily on speculations. Research suggests that most of the above symptoms are due to the temporary damage of the hippocampus - part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. If you are interested to know more about the effects of stress on this organ go to http://www.brain.com/about/full_list_article.cfm?ID=39 to read some scientific publications.
The stress response is obviously aimed at an immediate physical reaction. From that point of view processes such as learning and planning are not of primary concern and it is more important to react physically as soon as possible, rather than to be able to react in the most appropriate way.(Reacting in the most appropriate way involves planning, and planning means a loss of precious time.) Nonetheless, in the modern world, we face up a variety of social and technical problems which require exactly concentration, preliminary consideration of our actions and our behaviour, ability to follow instructions, quick orientation in new situations. What is the good of extra muscle energy and higher heart rate for a driver who has to quickly choose the right manoeuvre in order to avoid head collision? Dealing with a street attack requires as much composure as physical readiness to fight.
The answer is preliminary training. We can either change our attitude towards stressors, so that we do not perceive them as stressors any more or we may develop certain patterns of (supposedly) adequate behaviour for extreme situations.
The first strategy is very efficient for emotional distressors because it eradicates the cause of the problem. Applied to real situations, it prevents panic and useless fuss, eases mind, so that the processes of perceiving new information and planning one's actions are not hampered by stress. We have discussed it thoroughly in the Take Control of It chapter.
The second strategy relies on the training of certain patterns of behaviour, which are supposed to keep the individual safe in stressful situations.
Stress is a defensive physiological reaction, universal for any threat. Since our body has a universal protective mechanism, can't we develop a universal psychical reaction, which would assure adequate behaviour and prevent panic in any stressful situation? Again, the answer is not synonymous. Modifying a universal psychical response would require hard training and still it depends greatly on individuality and on the impact of the stressor. Whether certain pattern of behaviour will remain in the long-term memory is dubious to predict. Given a very strong stressor it is more likely that one will fall into panic, rather than keep the kind of behaviour he has been training for.
If we intend to develop a set of reactions for a more specific situation there is greater chance that we will react in the way we have trained. Policemen are one example. A policeman will always feel stress in the moment of catching an armed criminal, no matter how experienced, skilled and intrepid he is. Nonetheless he will not forget how to shoot, what grasp to apply and how to put handcuffs. We have not heard a case of a policeman with long-term experience who has forgotten his skills due to stress. This prompts us that the development of automated responses(conditioned reflexes(glossaries)) for a specific kind of stressors can be effective even under severe stress. Such efficiency however, may be achieved only after diligent and prolonged training.
Hard training may yield high skill in what we are training about but that is not enough. The goal is to train in such a way that the pattern of reaction "is turned on" when under stress, not only during training sessions.
How is such training achieved?
The answer of this question relies more on experience rather than on scientific research. We should keep in mind, therefore, that what applies to the majority of people, may not necessarily apply to the individuality of every person.
It is supposed that conditioned reflexes are best learned in environment close to that of the stressful situation. It is important that the trainee purposefully imagines him/herself subjected to the supposed stressful situation.
Whether the learning of certain conditioned reflex will be even more efficient if the trainee is subjected to severe stress during the training session we cannot say.
We must once again underscore that the "turning on" of a learned pattern of behaviour/action depends greatly on one's individuality. We can state certain that people exist, who, no matter how well and how long trained will still fall into panic when subjected to (hyper)stress, rather than react in the way they have trained. In such people the non-conditioned reflexes dominate over the conditioned ones; probably that is determined genetically.
Learned patterns for thinking
Since we can develop conditioned reflexes for physical reactions, can we develop ones for thinking? Can we develop such a conditioned reflex, so that when subjected to stress, we would begin to follow a strictly defined way of thinking(definite algorithm)?
Yes that is possible, but the mechanisms by which such a pattern is learned are unclear.
Under stress it is normal that a person will not deal with the stressor(the threat) in the most efficient way. Most probably, he will react in a way, although wrong, obviously close to the most efficient one. There are cases however, when people react in a way totally inadequate to the situation. How an inadequate reaction is produced and to what extent an inadequate reaction is a random one, is still not understood.
Under severe stress a person may stiffen - become unable to react in whatever, adequate or inadequate way. The mechanisms of "stiffening" are yet to be researched and explained.
Taking track of time under stress
Although under stress a person may react either with a very clear memory of every detail of the stressful event it is equally possible that he cannot remember anything. Nevertheless we tend to "elongate time" in our memories about the stressful event - we may not remember exactly what has happened, but the feeling of an event which has lasted for very long time will remain in our memory.
It is possible that after extreme stress one confuse order of events. How we become aware of time, we become aware of terms such as now, before, after, late, soon is still unknown.
It is supposed that part of the brain called hippocampus acts as a natural clock.(The hippocampus deals also with short-term memory, learning and some other functions.) Usually, if the hippocampus is damaged this adversely affects the work of the pineal gland - an organ responsible for seasonal and daily biorhythms. Apart from this anatomical data, however, too little is known about the way our awareness of time is formed and about the way we memorize time sequence.
suggest additional material/new interpretations on the subject
www.brain.com -general information about the brain
http://www.davideck.com/cgi-bin/tests/tests.cgi?action=iq - Fun: test your iq!
Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, Appraisal, and Coping.
"General Psychology", Moskowitz, Orgel -> "Frustration, Conflict and Adjustment"