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See Inside Scientific American Volume 306, Issue 4

Everyday Stress Can Shut Down the Brain's Chief Command Center

Neural circuits responsible for conscious self-control are highly vulnerable to even mild stress. When they shut down, primal impulses go unchecked and mental paralysis sets in



Photograph by Dan Saelinger

The entrance exam to medical school consists of a five-hour fusillade of hundreds of questions that, even with the best preparation, often leaves the test taker discombobulated and anxious. For some would-be physicians, the relentless pressure causes their reasoning abilities to slow and even shut down entirely. The experience—known variously as choking, brain freeze, nerves, jitters, folding, blanking out, the yips or a dozen other descriptive terms—is all too familiar to virtually anyone who has flubbed a speech, bumped up against writer’s block or struggled through a lengthy exam.

For decades scientists thought they understood what happens in the brain during testing or a battlefront firefight. In recent years a different line of research has put the physiology of stress in an entirely new perspective. The response to stress is not just a primal reaction affecting parts of the brain that are common to a wide array of species ranging from salamanders to humans. Stress, in fact, can cripple our most advanced mental faculties, the areas of the brain most developed in primates.

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