The Effect of Stress on Selective Attention in Healthy Young Adults
Chedburn, Sarah K S
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Objectives: To investigate the effect of mild, naturally induced stress on selective attention. Much research has gone into stress and its effect on cognition, finding that varying levels of stress can affect functions of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, where receptors for stress hormones exist. Direction of this effect has varied from study to study; therefore, this experiment attempts to resolve some of these inconsistencies. Selective attention – a function of the prefrontal cortex – is examined, because it is a highly important process, essential for everyday functioning and required in many, if not all, cognitive tasks. Methods: Stress was induced in 20 participants using a high number of difficult mental questions in a limited time of five minutes and with social evaluative threat. A control group of 22 participants answered very basic mental arithmetic questions without social evaluation. Selective attention was assessed in both groups using a flanker paradigm. Perceived stress questionnaires were given at the end of the experiment. Results: A between-subjects ANOVA found a significant difference between the two groups, with the stress group responding faster but less accurately. Within the stress group, those who rated their perceived stress levels as ‘high’ were faster than those who rated it as ‘moderate’. Those who experienced the control condition as mildly stressful were less accurate than those who did not find it to be stressful. ‘High stress’ participants were found to be more efficient performers than ‘no stress’ participants, but only for congruent trials. Conclusions: It is concluded that results indicate stress weakening selective attention, causing lower accuracy and faster reaction times due to this slow higher cortical process not being applied fully to the task. The implications of this are discussed in detail.