Emily Kam

May 2, 2019

How to Prepare for Finals Season: The Science of Memory, Stress and Cognition

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It’s almost that time of year again: long nights in the library, bottomless coffee and a never-ending rainbow of highlighters, flashcards and notes. Most importantly, there’s that nerve-wracking realization that your final grade will be determined by a single two-and-a-half hour exam. All of this describes the one thing that Cornell students have on their minds: finals!

Although stress, all-nighters and cramming seem to be the norm for finals week, it’s actually important to relax and get enough sleep so that the memory can function correctly, as stress and lack of sleep can negatively affect cognition. Prof. Charles Brainerd, human development, has done extensive research on neuroscience and memory. He explained the scientific background behind the impact of finals stress on cognition.

According to Brainerd, memory function is unique in college students, compared to children and older adults, because this is the first stage in life in which the brain is fully matured.

“As young adults, we are very good at extracting the gist of our experience,” Brainerd said.

As a result of this, he explained that college students and older high school students are prone to specific brain complications, such as memory illusions, because of memory development.

In learning, Brainerd explained that humans store two distinct records of their memory: semantic gist and verbatim memory. Semantic gist is the overall meaning of an experience — basically its general idea. Verbatim memory is the literal surface form of an experience, in which the exact experience and it’s specific details are recalled.

“In general, learning techniques that make for stronger gist memories are better for academic performance … because verbatim memories are not as stable across time as gist memories are. So other things being equal, you’re going to have to rely on your gist memories to perform on examinations,” he said.

Because of this, active learning techniques that allow for truly understanding the material, rather than rote memorization, are the most effective.

There is also one extremely important thing that significantly affects how memory works: sleep. Brainerd went into detail about how lack of sleep degrades all aspects of memory performance.

“If we’re talking about verbatim and gist memory, [lack of sleep] makes both verbatim retention and gist extraction harder, and it really makes it hard to understand and extract the meaning of experience,” Brainerd said.

It is difficult to pay attention and remain alert throughout the day, which is crucial when learning new information, while sleep deprived. Also, sleep plays a major role in consolidation, in which information settles in the brain. In order to retain information learned, an adequate amount of sleep each night is necessary.

Along with sleep, stress is also a factor that affects how memory works. Brainerd explained how stress can impair memory.

“Stress impairs memory and one of the key ways it does it is by blurring attention. It also creates negative emotion and one of the fundamental results of psychological research on memory is that if we put you in a negative mood, it impairs your memory, particularly your verbatim memory,” Brainerd said.

Stress is extremely common amongst college students, and there are many ways in which college students choose to relieve their stress, with one common way being meditation. Brainerd explained that meditation lowers high stress levels by temporarily taking attention away from the problem(s) causing stress.

Brainerd said that if a student can find some time to meditate while still keeping up with their school work and other responsibilities throughout the day, it can be beneficial for their well-being. However, according to Brainerd, any activity that lowers stress will have a positive impact.

“Anything that lowers stress is good for memory, it doesn’t have to be meditation,” Brainerd said.

To conclude, Brainerd gave some general advice for managing final exams. He explained how time management is crucial, and staying on track with assignments throughout the semester will help to alleviate the stress at the end of the semester that is often a result of procrastination.

“Tomorrow is always today as a student,” he said.

While studying for final exams this semester, make sure to take care of yourself — your brain will thank you for it.