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Stress: essential for teenage learning?

teenage mice: smart as a whip?
Go ahead: stress him out a little
                       AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

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Skateboarders, snowboarders, and kayakers all know it is true: a little competition goes a long way. Without that touch of adrenaline, without someone at your back, or that impossible rapid before you -- offering the sure possibility of failure -- no one would ever learn anything.

In the world of athletics, this tenet is taken for granted: teenagers need a certain amount of stress to advance. But in school, stress is anathema to parents, to students, to teachers. In our local middle school, the going academic philosophy is stated quite succinctly by its principal: “From 6th to 8th grade, students are on a hormonal high that makes learning impossible. They just need socialization and fun activities that keep them in school. They can learn what they need to know later.” Unfortunately, by 11th or 12th grade, parents realize that their kids can’t write; students realize that they are not prepared for that Ivy League school that will not accept them anyway.

New research in brain chemistry validates what has long been apparent to educators who believe in a little stress. Sheryl Smith, a professor of physiology and pharmacology at SUNY Downstate, looked at the significant differences in the ways stress receptors react to hormones in the brains of mice before, during, and after puberty. While pre-pubescent and adult mice had no trouble learning spatial concepts in a series of mazes, the “teenage” mice simply could not remember solutions to posed problems. Even after several tries, they could not learn how to negotiate the maze -- unless they were injected with a stress hormone (THP) which, only in teenage brains, increases, rather than reduces, stress.

“In children and adult humans, THP is naturally released in response to stress. It reduces brain activity and calms you down,” says Smith. “But in pubertal mice, THP has the opposite effect – increasing their stress.”

This increased stress allowed the teenage mice to learn how to solve presented problems – and to perform in a way that showed they could learn. Without stress, they were miserable, unmotivated, incorrigible, “lazy” deadbeats; and it was not their fault.

This result indicates that students who receive some pressure to study, and to achieve academically, starting in sixth or seventh grade, have a huge academic advantage over those who wait until they come out of their “hormonal high” in high school. In an interview with Robert Frederick of Science Magazine, Smith says:

“…the results indirectly suggest that perhaps a little bit of stress is good for you. And this wouldn’t mean anything about injecting drugs or using a pharmacological approach, but the kind of stress that has been shown to improve learning, if you look through the literature, it just, it has to do with motivation. And internally, you know, motivated kinds of stress where people care more about doing well and perhaps therapies that are targeting that kind of motivation stress might be an interesting approach.”

Interesting, indeed. “Stressing” middle school students with academic challenges which are just out of their reach – which stretch their brains and make them have to work to achieve success – help them to achieve positive academic results. Of course, teachers and parents must believe in and support this process for it to work. Athletes understand the rewards of reaching beyond their apparent limits. However, as Paulo Coehlo says in The Diary of a Magus:

“Fans who lack the faith can make a team lose a game it is already winning.”

For more info: 

Does Puberty Make You Stupid? Lessons from Mice by Claudia Wallis: Time: Health & Science
Why teenagers find learning a drag by Jessica Hamzelou: New Scientist

Science Magazine Podcast – Interview with Sheryl Smith
Transcript, Science Magazine Podcast -- 19 March 2010 – Interview with Sheryl Smith

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