That might sound like a funny question. We talk about excessive stress all the time as well as the health issues that stress can facilitate. However is there such a thing as too little stress?
A recent study from Johns Hopkins points out that people tend to perform better when they are being watched than when they aren’t.(1) One would think that adding a live audience would add stress, but the results are positive, not negative.
In the audience case, there’s a documented process that causes improved performance. In an experiment held at Cal Tech, they had research subjects perform a task, some in from of a small audience and some not.
When participants knew an audience was watching, a part of the prefrontal cortex associated with social cognition, particularly the thoughts and intentions of others, activated along with another part of the cortex associated with reward. Together these signals triggered activity in the ventral striatum, an area of the brain that motivates action and motor skills.
The process caused improvement in motor skills and performance.
Some educators recognize the double-edged nature of stress.
While stress around the time of learning is thought to enhance memory formation, thus leading to robust memories, stress markedly impairs memory retrieval, bearing, for instance, the risk of underachieving at exams.(2)
In a review article, Starke and Brand also dis.cuss the positive and negative effects of stress on decision-making.
Again, Aristotle seems to be right. We can’t function without some level of stress, but excess is destructive. For each person, there’s a middle path between the extremes that produces the best results. You just need to find it.
- Vikram S Chib, Ryo Adachi, John P O’Doherty. Neural substrates of social facilitation effects on incentive-based performance. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2018; DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsy024
- Susanne Vogel and Lars Schwabe, “Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom,” https://www.nature.com/articles/npjscilearn201611.
- Katrin Starke and Matthias Brand, “Decision making under stress: A selective review,” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, Volume 36, Issue 4, April 2012, Pages 1228-1248