Why a brain under stress can't learn new information

Learn about: Why a brain under stress can't learn new information from Jerome Schultz, PhD,...
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Why a brain under stress can't learn new information

When a brain is under stress, a wonderful reaction happens. The brain perceives that it's under attack from something outside itself. And we're wonderfully equipped to produce these chemicals that affect the way we respond. So when we experience stress, our body is pumping out different types of chemicals. The most important stress-related chemical is a hormone called cortisol. And there's a wonderful ballet that goes on in the body and the brain when we're under stress. The brain creates this cortisol, in addition to some other chemicals, that affect the way our brain weighs or measures the level of stress. So in other words, when we're under a lot of stress, cortisol gets pumped out. It goes from our brain down to our adrenal glands, which sit in the back of our bodies. It sends a chemical reaction to the brain again. And there's a wonderful loop. Under too much stress, the loop breaks down. There's too much cortisol. There are too many brain chemicals. So you imagine this situation where you've got these chemicals floating around the human body. Under too much stress the body reacts by producing too much or too little. It really depends on the individual and what the stressor is and how the individual sees the stress. But what happens then in the brain is the brain is saying, hey, we can't handle this. You need to get out of this place and you need to get out of this now. So the chemicals, instead of getting our brains activated to handle the challenge, it's sending the blood and the oxygen to the parts of our body that are responsible for escape. It wants to let our legs work better so we can run. It wants to let our hearts work better so we can run. It stops our digestion because if we're under stress we don't care about digesting our food. We just want to get the heck out of the place. So kids in school are sitting there. They're feeling bombarded by the stress. And the bells are going off - [ding, ding, ding]. Get out of here. Get out of here. Get out of here. And the teacher's saying, honey, I think you would do a good job on your reading if you just do the next problem. That child isn't going to hear any of that. That child is looking for the exit sign, looking for the escape route. And that's the reaction to stress, the chemical reaction that the body creates. And it gets in the way of learning. It's not a good thing.

Learn about: Why a brain under stress can't learn new information from Jerome Schultz, PhD,...


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Jerome Schultz, PhD

Clinical Neuropsychologist

Dr. Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is a former middle school special education teacher. He is currently in private practice as a clinical neuropsychologist and is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School in the Department of Psychiatry.  For over three decades, he has specialized in the neuropsychological assessment and treatment of children with learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other special needs. He was on the faculty of Lesley University in Cambridge MA for almost 30 years, and served there as the Founding Director of a diagnostic clinic called the Learning Lab. Before returning to private practice, Dr. Schultz served as the Co-Director of the Center for Child and Adolescent Development at the Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Teaching Hospital.

Dr. Schultz received both his undergraduate and Master’s degree from The Ohio State University and holds a Ph.D. from Boston College. He has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology. He currently serves on the Editorial Board of a journal called Academic Psychiatry, and is on the Professional Advisory Boards of a website called Inside ADHD.com, and the Learning Disabilities Association of America.

In addition to his clinical and educational work, Dr. Schultz serves as an international consultant on issues related to the neuropsychology and appropriate education of children and young adults with ADHD & LD and other special needs. In his current role as neuropsychological consultant to several large school districts in the Boston area, he is on the ground, in schools and working with kids and their teachers several days each week.

Dr. Schultz created an award-winning video called “Einstein and Me” about living successfully with a learning disability, and has written extensively about children with learning, behavioral and emotional challenges. He has a special education and psychology blog on the Huffington Post. His book, called Nowhere to Hide: Why Kids with ADHD and LD Hate School and What We Can Do About It, (Jossey-Bass/Wiley) which examines the role of stress in learning, has received international acclaim.


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