That our emotional state can affect our cognitive functions can be all too clear to anyone struggling to complete a mental task under pressure. What has been less clear, until now, is whether that relationship between our emotions and our abilities can change over a period of time.
To explore that connection, Kelly Trezise and Robert A. Reeve from the University of Melbourne decided to investigate how an emotional state (in this case, worry, in the form of Math Anxiety) affected the working memory (WM) of students preparing for an algebra test.
To do this, the pair subjected 133 high-school students to a series of tests designed to test their working memory and levels of worry over the course of a day.
Writing in the journal Cognition and Emotion, the researchers conclude that both working memory and levels of worry can change over a short period of time -- even a day -- with any change to either worry levels or working memory affecting the ability to solve problems. Significantly, just how much effect worry has on working memory (and problem solving) depends on how much working-memory capacity one has in the first place. Moreover, levels of worry and working memory also seem to have an effect on each other -- but not in the linear way we might have expected.
The researchers conclude: "On the basis of the final model, a student with initial higher WM and lower Worry will likely maintain WM and Worry levels and algebraic problem solving accuracy would remain high. Conversely, for a student with low WM and high Worry, WM is likely to decrease, Worry increase and problem solving would be impaired."
"Thus the model suggests that what begins as relatively small differences between individuals in WM and Worry, though their mutual iterative differences, would lead to much larger differences."
More research needs to be done on the influence other factors like feedback, pressure and location have on the complex relationship between WM and worry, but Trezise and Reeve's findings already have important implications. Understanding just how stable (or temporary) worry, like the all-too-common Math Anxiety, is may help to prevent or treat it in future.
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