A little while ago, the New York Times ran an article about SAT stress—the biology of it, how we’re programmed to deal with it, recent studies around it, and how to make it work for us.
It’s an exhaustive look at studies and their implications, and I’m not going to try to summarize it all here. Instead, let’s focus on one specific study done by Chun-Yen Chang, a Taiwanese researcher who isolated a gene that has everything to do with how focused you’re going to be on your SAT.
Dopamine and brain function
The neurotransmitter dopamine does a lot of different things. Among them, it effects your level of focus and logic ability. If you’re trying to solve a complicated problem, then a good helping of dopamine is absolutely necessary. But too much of it actually has the opposite effect; brain function starts to weaken if there’s a dopamine flood.
The type of stress that the SAT triggers increases dopamine levels, which means two things: First, if you’re low on dopamine to begin with, the boost from the test stress will increase your general mental performance. On the other hand, if you already have a lot of dopamine, the stress causes a problem. Your brain overheats—it’s too much to deal with.
The COMT gene
The gene that Chang and his team isolated, the COMT gene, decides what kind of dopamine-destroying enzymes you have. As you create more and more dopamine, these enzymes help keep you from going overboard and sacrificing cognitive abilities. But there are two types of that enzyme. One type gets rid of dopamine quickly, while the other does so slowly.
If you have more of the fast-acting COMT enzyme, then you’ll generally have too little dopamine to perform at your best. At least, that’s true for the normal day-to-day (imagine studying for your SAT at home). But when you hit a period of high stress—like when taking your actual SAT—then you’ll produce more dopamine, and those fast-acting dopamine destroyers will be useful. Instead of holding you back, they’ll keep you from a dopamine overdose. That’s the “warrior” type: someone who actually does better when stressed.
Meanwhile, if you have the slow-acting COMT enzyme, you don’t deal with SAT stress as well since you can’t get rid of dopamine quickly enough. You overheat. It’s a trade-off, though, since less stressful situations will give you less dopamine. When dealing with those more mundane kinds of problems, the slow-acting COMT enzyme is helpful because it leaves you with higher overall cognition.
Worriers becoming warriors
In the context of the SAT, that sounds like good news for half of us (the “warriors” with more fast-acting enzymes) and bad news for the other half (the “worriers” with more slow-acting enzymes). Basically, it says that if you have test anxiety, there’s nothing you can do about it; it’s in your genes. But that’s not the whole story.
Having the “worrier” gene gives you a better background in solving more difficult problems, thanks to all the experience you have working with your normally ideal dopamine levels. So then, the key is just to reduce stress levels so you don’t make too much dopamine and break down. How can you reduce stress? Well, there’s adjusting your posture to start. How about sucking on a piece of hard candy? Besides being calming, the sugar might help you make better decisions.
But, maybe most importantly, you should be taking timed practice tests. If you learn not to worry about the clock, you can reap the advantages of naturally high dopamine levels without enduring the drawbacks. The Times article points out that in novice pilots, the fast-acting enzyme leads to better performance, but in experienced pilots (who are accustomed to that specific type of stress), the slow-acting version has the upper hand.
So then, do you have test anxiety? Yeah? Great! Just keep practicing and that’ll actually work to your advantage on your SAT.