Sunday, February 22, 2009

Down with the Executive Function

I've been reading this article on stress and how maybe it isn't always as bad as people say it is. I've found the bulk of the article only moderately interesting, but there's this one part that really fascinated me:

"Acutely, stress helps us remember some things better," says neuroendocrinologist Bruce McEwen of Rockefeller University. "Chronically, it makes us worse at remembering other things, and it impairs our mental flexibility." These chronic effects may disappear when the stressor does. In medical students studying for exams, the medial prefrontal cortex shrinks during cram sessions but grows back after a month off.

Here's what wikipedia has to say about the prefontal cortex:
This brain region has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behaviors, personality expression, decision making and moderating correct social behavior. The basic activity of this brain region is considered to be orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals. The most typical psychological term for functions carried out by the pre-frontal cortex area is executive function. Executive function relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social "control" (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially-unacceptable outcomes).

So, the article was talking about medical students and not law students, but it makes so much sense to me. These are exactly the skills that I lose during finals time. (And clearly for other people as well - I mean, I've been to enough post-finals drinking fests to know that everyone's ability to control their socially unacceptable behaviors is a bit, shall we say, limited.) But it also seems true that those abilities come back. We're not always like that.

Maybe it's just me, but having a biological reason for all of this makes me feel just a teensy bit better. I might even give myself permission to let my prefontal cortex go to the dogs this semester during exam time.


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