Are you thinking straight as you bungee jump off that bridge? Or are you impaired by your intense emotions and physiological arousal?
Psychological theory says it’s natural for anxiety to consume our mental resources and focus attention on potential threats. And various field studies involving parachutists and emergency simulations largely back this up.
New research by a team at the Autonomous University of Barcelona goes further and tests whether our perception of an intense situation as positive or negative can make a difference to our cognition*.
On a 30 metre-high bridge in Catalonia, ^Judit Castellà and her colleagues tested dozens of bungee jumpers, mostly first-timers. They were tested three times: 30 minutes before a 15 metre free-fall jump; immediately afterwards; and again eight minutes after that.
The bungee jumpers rated how positive or negative they were feeling, and the intensity of those feelings. They also completed tests of their working memory (the ability to recall strings of digits); their ability to concentrate and pay attention (using what’s known as the Go/No Go Task); and their decision-making (their ability to identify which of four packs of cards was the most financially rewarding over time).
Their performance was compared with an age-matched group of control participants doing all the same tests in a similar environment but not performing a jump.
As expected, the jumpers reported far more intense emotions than the control group. Importantly, the jumpers rated these feelings as highly positive before and especially after the jump. The main finding, however, is that working memory actually improved in the jumpers after their jump (but not in the controls), and there was a hint that the jumpers’ decision-making might have improved too. Meanwhile, the jumpers’ attention performance was unaffected.
In ^Cognition and Emotion, Castellà and her team suggest that when an intensely arousing experience like bungee jumping is perceived positively, it may actually enhance cognition rather than impair it. They interpreted their findings in terms of the “Broaden and Build Theory” – the idea that positive emotions can make cognitive functions more flexible and can counteract the narrowing influence of negative emotions.
The researchers believe their findings could benefit emergency responders or any professionals who need to make rapid decisions in intensely arousing situations.
^ Cognition and Emotion journal article: www.tandfonline.com
“Jump and free fall! Memory, attention, and decision-making processes in an extreme sport” by Judit Castella, Jaume Boned, Jorge Luis Mendez-Ulrich & Antoni Sanz.