How Challenging Situations Make You Forget Where You Are and What You're Doing

Challenges and stress can mess with your brain. Matt Cardy/Getty Images

If you find that challenging situations tend to leave you disoriented, you're not alone. New research from Austria has found that challenging situations, regardless of whether they are positive or negative, can affect our subconscious ability to understand where we are and what's happening around us. The finding could play a key role in better understanding human memory when it comes to witnessing a crime, or how we act when under duress.

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For the small study, published online in Frontiers, a research team from the University of Innsbruck in Austria had 13 adult volunteers with no history of mental illness watch "challenging clips" that depicted either a positive, negative, or neutral situation. The positive challenging situation was a sex scene while the negatively challenging situation was a violent scene, and neutral scenes were not emotionally stimulating.

After watching the clips, the volunteers were asked to complete a test that would measure their ability to memorize where objects were in the scenes. Results showed that both those who watched the negative and positive challenging videos had trouble recalling where objects were in the video and had trouble noticing patterns in two other unrelated tasks. On the other hand, those who watched the neutral video had no measurable cognition troubles.

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This is not the first time research has suggested that certain experiences can affect human cognition. For example, a 2002 study from Murdoch University, published online in Current Psychology, found that high amounts of stress can cause individuals to create false memories, and those who tend to describe situations with more vivid imagery are more vulnerable to creating false memories when under high amounts of stress.

The study concluded that based on these results, therapists should be careful that certain memory recollection techniques do not accidentally guide patients in the creation of false memories.

The Austrian team may have identified the biological mechanism behind this disoriented cognition in stressful situations. They suggest that these experiences may affect the hippocampus region of the brain, which is associated with memory. If stressful situations prompt the hippocampus to downgrade function in certain situations, like in the midst of trauma, it may explain lapses in memory and cognition. However, more research is needed to prove this.

"Changes in cognition during high arousal states play an important role in psychopathology," the researchers explained in a press release.

The authors say these findings could have very wide applications, both in therapeutic situations to help individuals heal from challenging situations and life experiences, and in the criminal justice field to better determine the accuracy of witness recollection.