Acute psychosocial stress enhances visuospatial memory in healthy males

Robyn Human, Kevin G.F. Thomas, Anna Dreyer, Alyssa R. Amod, Pedro S.A. Wolf, W. Jake Jacobs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Previous research demonstrates that stress can disrupt a number of different cognitive systems, including verbal memory, working memory, and decision-making. Few previous studies have investigated relations between stress and visuospatial information processing, however, and none have examined relations among stress, visuospatial memory performance, and planning/organisation of visuospatial information simultaneously. In total, 38 undergraduate males completed the copy trial of the Rey-Osterrieth Complex Figure Test. Those assigned randomly to the Stress group (n = 19) were then exposed to a laboratory-based psychosocial stressor; the others were exposed to an equivalent control condition. All then completed the delayed recall trial of the Rey-Osterrieth Complex Figure Test. Physiological and self-report measures of stress indicated that the induction manipulation was effective. Our predictions that control participants, relative to stressor-exposed participants, (a) take less time to complete the Rey-Osterrieth Complex Figure Test recall trial, (b) reproduce the figure more accurately on that trial, and (c) show better planning and more gestalt-based organisational strategies in creating that reproduction were disconfirmed. At recall, those with higher circulating cortisol levels (measured post-stress-induction) completed the drawing more accurately than those with lower circulating cortisol levels. Otherwise stated, the present data indicated that exposure to an acute psychosocial stressor enhanced visuospatial memory performance in healthy males. This data pattern is consistent with a previously proposed inverted U-shaped relationship between cortisol and cognition: Under this proposal, moderate levels of the hormone (as induced by the current manipulation) support optimal performance, whereas extremely high and extremely low levels impair performance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)300-313
Number of pages14
JournalSouth African Journal of Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2013


  • Cortisol
  • Hippocampus
  • Memory
  • Planning
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Rey-Osterrieth Complex Figure Test
  • Stress
  • Visuospatial

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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