The Neuroscience Behind the Pre-Frontal Cortex and Stress

Decreasing student stress is essential to ensuring student success because the same part of the brain that guides decision-making, problem-solving and planning is also the most sensitive to stress--the pre-frontal cortex.

Posted May 14th, 2019 by Eduology

Why does stress decrease learning?

The key activities students engage in during career development, academic advising and academic support sessions--decision-making, problem-solving,and planning--rely on the pre-frontal cortex (Arnsten, Wang, & Paspalas, 2012); yet, the prefrontal cortex is highly sensitive to stress (Arnsten, 2009).

Stress reduces blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, decreasing common sense and decision-making (Sapolsky, 1998). The reality is that cognitive learning can only take place in the absence of intense stress (Dispenza, 2007; Howard, 2000), so creating a relaxing environment is critical to success in working with students.

What factors increase student stress?

According to research, the brain primarily focuses on survival and lowers pre-frontal cortex activity when it perceives a threat. For instance, if you try holding your breath (a pre-frontal cortex activity), other parts of your brain will override your pre-frontal cortex and force you to breathe. Walking into a campus office can trigger a stress response if the environment is unfamiliar or unfriendly. If the environment feels warm and secure, positive learning more likely occurs.

Moreover, when a student faces too many options or is overloaded with information, the pre-frontal cortex gets overwhelmed and stressed (Arnsten, Wang, & Paspalas, 2012). Decreasing the amount of information and limiting choices can go a long way in lowering student stress and improving the decision-making process.

Learn More: Eduology’s Brain-Based Career Coaching and Academic Advising & Support Webinars

3 Tips for Creating a Brain-Friendly Environment: Lowering Student Stress

1. Create a friendly, secure environment in your office.

2. Greet students and establish a personal connection to put students at ease.

3. Avoid overwhelming students with information. According to neuroscience research, four pieces of information is enough.