The present field experiment examined how multi-trial visuo-spatial learning and memory performance are impacted by excessive arousal, instigated by a potentially life-threatening event (i.e., a first parachute jump). Throughout a parachute training activity, subjective and neuroendocrine (i.e., cortisol) stress levels were assessed of 61 male military cadets who were randomly assigned to a control (n = 30) or a jump stress condition (n = 31). Post-stress learning and memory capacity was assessed with a 10-trial path-learning task that permitted emergence of learning curves. Pre-activity cortisol concentrations indicated a significant neuroendocrine anticipatory stress response in the stress group. Following parachuting, subjective stress levels and salivary cortisol reactivity differed significantly between groups. Visuo-spatial path-learning performance was impaired significantly after jump stress exposure, relative to the control group. Moreover, examination of the learning curves showed similar learning and memory performance at onset of the trials, with curves bifurcating as the task became more complex. These findings are in accordance with leading theories that acknowledge a moderating effect of task complexity. In sum, the present study extends knowledge concerning anticipatory stress effects, endogenously instigated cortisol reactivity, and the influence of extreme arousal on visuo-spatial path learning.
- Anticipated stress
- Path finding