Cortisol is a hormone that has a number of important functions. It gets us out of bed in the morning, it cranks up our metabolism in preparation for intense exercise, and it also helps us memorize things and even learn. Yes, it helps us learn. Memorization in particular, and cognition in general, would be significantly impaired without cortisol. When you are surprised, particularly with something unpleasant, cortisol levels increase and enhance cognition. This is in part what an interesting study suggests; a study in which I was involved. The study was properly “sanctified” by the academic peer-review process (Kock et al., 2009; full reference and link at the end of this post).
The main hypothesis tested through this study is also known as the “flashbulb memorization” hypothesis. Interestingly, up until this study was conducted no one seemed to have used evolution to provide a basis on which flashbulb memorization can be explained. The basic idea here is that enhanced cognition within the temporal vicinity of animal attacks (i.e., a few minutes before and after) allowed our hominid ancestors to better build and associate memories related to the animals and their typical habitat markers (e.g., vegetation, terrain, rock formations), which in turn increased their survival chances. Their survival chances increased because the memories helped them avoid a second encounter; if they survived the first, of course. And so flashbulb memorization evolved. (In fact, it might have evolved earlier than at the hominid stage, and it may also have evolved in other species.)
The study involved 186 student participants. The participants were asked to review web-based learning modules and subsequently take a test on what they had learned. Data from 6 learning modules in 2 experimental conditions were contrasted. In the treatment condition a web-based screen with a snake in attack position was used to surprise the participants; the snake screen was absent in the control condition. See schematic figure below (click on it to enlarge). The “surprise zone” in the figure comprises the modules immediately before and after the snake screen (modules 3 and 4); those are the modules in which higher scores were predicted.
The figure below (click on it to enlarge) shows a summary of the results. The top part of the figure shows the percentage differences between average scores obtained by participants in the treatment and control conditions. The bottom part of the figure shows the average scores obtained by participants in both conditions, as well as the scores that the participants would have obtained by chance. The chance scores would likely have been the ones obtained by the participants if their learning had been significantly impaired for any of the modules; this could have happened due to distraction, for example. As you can see, the scores for all modules are significantly higher than chance.
In summary, the participants who were surprised with the snake screen obtained significantly higher scores for the two modules immediately before (about 20 percent higher) and after (about 40 percent higher) the snake screen. The reason is that the surprise elicited by the snake screen increased cortisol levels, which in turn improved learning for modules 3 and 4. Adrenaline and noradrenaline (epinephrine and norepinephrine) may also be involved. This phenomenon is so odd that it seems to defy the laws of physics; note that Module 3 was reviewed before the snake screen. And, depending on the size of a test, this could have turned a “C” into an “A” grade!
Similarly, it is because of this action of cortisol that Americans reading this post, especially those who lived in the East Coast in 2001, remember vividly where they were, what they were doing, and who they were with, when they first heard about the September 11, 2001 Attacks. I was living in Philadelphia at the time, and I remember those details very vividly, even though the Attacks happened almost 10 years ago. That is one of the fascinating things that cortisol does; it instantaneously turns short-term contextual memories temporally associated with a surprise event (i.e., a few minutes before and after the event) into vivid long-term memories.
This study was part of the PhD research project of one of my former doctoral students, and now Dr. Ruth Chatelain-Jardon. Her PhD was granted in May 2010. She expanded the study through data collection in two different countries, and a wide range of analyses. (It is not that easy to get a PhD!) Her research provides solid evidence that flashbulb memorization is a real phenomenon, and also that it is a human universal. Thanks are also due to Dr. Jesus Carmona, another former doctoral student of mine who worked on a different PhD research project, but who also helped a lot with this project.
Kock, N., Chatelain-Jardón, R., & Carmona, J. (2009). Scaring them into learning!? Using a snake screen to enhance the knowledge transfer effectiveness of a web interface. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 7(2), 359-375.