How a single dose of cortisol can disrupt the learning process

How a single dose of cortisol can disrupt the learning process

7 August 2017 by Rachel Paling

One of the major messages that I bring across in my courses training teachers worldwide is “if our learner is suffering from stress, social pain or is in fight or flight mode, he/she will not be in the right state to learn anything!”


And as trainers, teachers, coaches and /or educators it is I essential for us to really know and understand this! In the end, we are there to help them learn and ensure that learning, otherwise what is the point! However, all too often, we are not aware enough of what is happening to our learner. Even a directive order like “say that again” or “say that in a different way” could have a direct impact on a learner, arousing their threat response and pushing them into an adverse reaction and fight or flight mode. I know this from first-hand experience when I was taking some Russian lessons some years ago and the teacher told me to “record my conversation and then listen to it when I was walking”.

This provoked in me one of my “Rachel gut reactions” where I immediately retorted “no way”. I think the teacher was shocked by my response and I quickly explained to her that actually I really hated walking down the street listening to things and besides as a busy entrepreneur I really never was walking down the street, I was normally hectically running around and driving from client to client. Now when I look back it was not only the fact that the teacher had told me to do something totally contrary to my nature, but also the fact that she had “ORDERED” me to do it.

Now as a coach, I understand that independent learners actually need to be “requested” or asked though permission questions for them to really respond in the right way. So, in fact it is always better to coat your order with permission – “may I ask you to….” For example, “Rachel, how about we record this conversation and may I ask you then to listen to it now and then whenever you get a moment?” – now that would have sounded like music to my ears 😊

It is fascinating to understand just how much cortisol (one of the stress chemicals) absolutely affects the learning process. One of my former universities, “Ruhr University Bochum (RUB)” in Germany, last January released results relating to this.

Dr Hubert Dinse stated how :

“Previous research has already shown that stress can prevent the retrieval of memories. But now we have discovered that it also has a major effect on our perception and perceptual learning”

And cognitive psychologist Prof Dr Oliver T. Wolf explains:

”Our data show that a single dose of cortisol not only disrupts memory in the hippocampus, but it also has a substantial effect on the plasticity of sensory areas of the brain”

So, we can see how cortisol suppresses the strengthening of synaptic connections. This means that the plasticity of the brain is affected and from this we can understand that the brain´s ability to learn is also affected.

In practical terms, this means that educators should be constantly aware of how stressed our learners are and especially when learning languages. Language learning has to be one of those topics that can instantly trigger the fight or flight response. I have seen confident top executives visibly shaking when they have to deliver a presentation in English. In fact, in one presentation, one lady stood up, went to the lectern to present, started to speak and the next minute she had passed out on the floor. Now that was a really extreme “limbic reaction”!

And in fact, all of us can relate to these moments, we have all had “panic moments” or “extreme reactions” and we will surely still have them at some point in our lives. Once we truly can understand what is happening to us in those moments, what is happening to the brain, how our survival mechanisms are responding, then we can develop calming tools to “help” us get through them. And perhaps one of the most important things to understand about the brain is that “the brain loves habit”. The more we do something, the more it becomes a habit, the more it becomes an automatic subconscious programme for the brain and the quieter the brain becomes.

So, if you have a language learner who is really suffering from the physical reactions to speaking the language or the mental fear of speaking, I would suggest speaking with them about the brain, the limbic system, the survival fight or flight modus and then explain how the more we do something the more it becomes second nature and normalized by the brain. So, the real key to calming the emotional brain when speaking languages is to keep doing more and more until the brain feels that it is “normal”.

Practise makes perfect they say – but in addition practice forges new pathways and new pathways create new habits and habits become part of the subconscious mind. And that is exactly what the language learner wants – to make the language so second-nature that it flows from the subconscious in that unconscious competence mode.

© 2024 Rachel Marie Paling

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