College was supposed to make me smarter. And it has, to some degree. I would be a downright liar if I said I knew all about media’s effects without Dr. Joe Champ, or about how to produce a newscast without Professor Pam Jackson. And I would be especially lying if you all thought I knew so much about mitochondria just because I’m smart – I definitely give points to that professor who was really great but whose name I no longer remember, unfortunately.
But this is exactly what I’m talking about. For all my thousands of dollars, I seem to be, inexplicably, getting dumber. And as we march toward finals week, this has become my chief concern. A study done by Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University has found that normal stress protects the body in times of threat, but prolonged stress may potentially damage the body, including the brain.
In the study, Sapolsky has investigated the stress-health link and reports that a prolonged flood of stress hormones, like when a student spends several hours studying for an exam, can actually cause shrinking in certain brain areas, particularly in the hippocampus. The major role of the hippocampus is in memory. It is not unusual for persons with prolonged stress to report forgetfulness and difficulty learning.
Well, I could have told you that.
I cannot remember anything. I will call my roommate with something urgent to say, and then breathe creepily into her ear and tell her about that one time, when I was five and I rode that pony, just to fill up the time until I can remember why I called her. Or sometimes, I will bend down to get something out of a drawer beneath my desk, and I will sit on the floor for at least five minutes, trying to remember why I’m down there. On the plus side, I can see where I forgot to vacuum. On the minus side, it reminds me that I need to remind myself to vacuum, which reminds me that I won’t remind myself to vacuum, which reminds me that I’m getting old and kind of forgetful. I am 22 now. I just didn’t expect that my mental faculties would go the way of my liver after the grand old age of 21.
Also, I make up new words. This particular one worries me because I’m a journalism major. It’s my job as a humor columnist to put words, real words, together in a humorous way so that you, other students, read the words and I can keep my job. But after a long night of studying when I find myself accidentally typing “wurds” and “jurnulism” and the ever-popular “stoodents” into my laptop, I can’t help but feel like I am suffering from a case of the stoopids. Or perhaps it’s a case of white trash. I can’t tell.
And I seem to be napping more, which may come more with age and less with dumb. I’m not really complaining about this – I’ll take a good nap whenever I can find it – but the problem is that my naps seem to find me. In class. Or at 10 a.m., a time when no decent person who woke up at 9 a.m. has any business napping. I’ve also been known to nod off in public, so if you see me, please be kind and don’t draw on my face. Of course, with my current problems, I might not even remember that I never had a beard to begin with.
In his study, Sapolsky also describes what he terms “the devastating effects of chronically secreted stress hormones in the brain.” “Chronic” is the key word. Stress hormones secreted into the brain can actually make you think more clearly over the short term, but have long-term effects that are not so swell. I don’t know any college student who isn’t already stressed, so that kid cramming for a final exam initially benefits from increasing oxygen delivery and nutrients to the brain. But, by the six-hour mark, that same kid (i.e, you or me) will be thinking less clearly, the neurons won’t be working as well and the capacity for memory retrieval will begin to fade quickly.
If our professors want us to go out, change the world and get great jobs, or at least pass our finals, I suggest they stop asking us to cram so much into our heads. The more we have to learn, the less we can remember. And if I ever have to know the important details about mitochondria, I am blaming you, CSU, for making me this much more stupider.
Hilary Davis is a senior technical journalism major. Her column appears every Friday in the Collegian. Also, she would like to tell her mom that she was just kidding – her liver is just fine. Replies and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.