Arousal or cortical activation and the Yerkes-Dodson law

Abraham McLaughlin
Arousal or cortical activation and the Yerkes-Dodson law

A certain amount of stress is necessary in our lives, when its levels are healthy, it represents part of the human adaptation process, essential for survival, since it prepares and stimulates the body to respond to stimuli and take action. Adequate levels of stress are needed for the body to perform its functions properly.


  • What is arousal?
    • Cortical or arousal activation theory
  • Yerkes-Dodson Law
    • Eustress and distress
  • Yerkes & Dodson's law in different areas
  • Three Recommendations to Maintain Optimal Arousal Levels
    • Conclution
    • Links
    • Bibliographic references

What is arousal?

"It is a general physiological and psychological activation of the organism, which varies on a continuum that goes from deep sleep to intense excitement." Goult & Krane, 1992.

The “arousal” construct is a term that corresponds to the level of cortical activation that is regulated by the ascending reticular activation system (SARA), when the level of arousal and activation is very high it can indicate distress or “negative stress”, when increases until the person begins to experience greater anxiety states, panic attacks or panic attacks, reflected in a decrease in the effectiveness of their performance.

Cortical excitability is a measure of the response of the cortex to stimulation. There is great cortical activation when we are in a state of alert, or in "wakefulness", which allows us to carry out various mental and physical operations, the high demand in the waking state increases the cortical activity of neurons.

Cortical hyperarousal manifests itself when we experience very intense emotions, stress, anxiety states, as well as states of panic. In contrast, during sleep or relaxation states, cortical activation is less.

There is a causal link between the basic dimensions of personality and the neurobiology of the brain, there is a differentiation between the cortical responses that extraverts have compared to that of introverts. As Eysenck showed in his theory of personality, thus establishing the neurobiological bases of certain stimuli and their responses in the cortical centers. It is worth mentioning that the performance deterioration is different for each personality type mentioned above..

Cortical or arousal activation theory

"The greater the cortical or arousal activation, the greater the physiological reactivity as well as the motor activity, and vice versa".

When there is greater cortical activation, the individual has the ability to produce responses and movements in a more agile way, however, as the optimal levels are exceeded, performance, performance and motivation tend to decline, since the person cannot continue with the exercise. same rhythm that he was carrying, that is why it is important to learn to modulate the levels of anxiety and stress.

Cortical hyperactivation in the body manifests itself through great activity on the part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) in its sympathetic division. Thus experiencing alterations in the control systems of homeostasis or internal balance of the body, such as: dilation of the pupil and increased heart rate, to name a few. The relationship between histaminergic axons, cholinergic nuclei in the forebrain and brainstem are substantial for cortical activation.

The posterior hypothalamus plays an important role in wakefulness. Histaminergic neurons are one of the sources of excitation for cortical activation during waking states, especially when a high level of attention is required, and they remain calm during sleep.

Yerkes-Dodson Law

Yerkes and Dodson's law states that performance tends to improve when people have an optimal level of arousal or activation, whereas when the level exceeds or falls below it, in both cases performance tends to decline significantly.

It is graphically represented by a bell-shaped curve or an inverted "U". This law was proposed by Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson (1908), it has its neurobiological basis in cortical activation and its influence on performance. Research has shown that in the different activities we carry out, the levels of arousal necessary for optimal performance vary, each individual has an optimal level of activation. As can be seen in the graph, the rising curve of the bell represents the energizing part of the arousal effect and the decrease is caused by the negative effects of distress, in both cases the arousal levels affect the performance of cognitive processes such as attention, memory, learning, problem solving and decision making, among others.

The brain, to adapt and protect us, acts as a “threat and danger detector”. When you have a very big concern, so much so that you cannot "get it out of your head", that takes away your attention and energy from other tasks that you have to perform throughout the day, sometimes it can affect the progress of other pending activities, since the brain seeks to survive, so it responds first to dangers. When the threat, whether real or perceived, causes arousal levels to exceed optimal, then proper functioning will decrease..

Eustress and distress

Does stress always have negative effects on people? When the stress and worry you feel motivate you to prepare and study to present a project, for example, when you finish doing it, you may experience a certain degree of satisfaction, this is known as “positive stress” or eustress. The same that can sharpen your memory, in turn, causes adrenaline to be produced, which adds energy that is necessary to complete your tasks and duties just before you have to turn them in. For that reason, sometimes the last hours are the most productive..

How can pathological anxiety and stress affect productivity and performance? When there is an excess of anguish and stress, some cognitive abilities can be affected or be detrimental, such as attention, logical and creative thinking, as well as learning and motivation, among others, it has been observed that it greatly affects in making decisions.

When states of anxiety and stress persist or that exceed the optimal levels of activation for a long time, this has a harmful effect on people's lives and neurologically corresponds to a physiological activation response that is not very adaptable to the circumstances that are experienced, being Thus, the levels of performance, attention, motivation and productivity of the individual can be detrimental; there are people who live under that yoke constantly and for a long time, it is when it becomes chronic producing a negative impact on people's lives.

Yerkes & Dodson's law in different areas

Applying the law of Yerkes and Dodson can improve performance in the different areas in which the person interacts, such as: academic, sports, business and even within the home. It is important to identify the levels of stress and motivation that a person can reach and not exceed the difficulty of the tasks carried out by the individual so that their performance does not decline.

The healthy body seeks homeostasis, being in the right middle corresponds to the optimal levels of performance and balance, when there is the right measure between motivation and healthy stress, a response is produced that helps us adapt and have an adequate coping with the situation, whether at home, at school, or on homework.

In the organizational area, knowledge of Yerkes and Dodson's law can be a valuable resource, since excess stress and anxiety generally negatively influence productivity and performance of workers. When you want to achieve good levels of productivity within the company or organization, there must be a work environment that motivates employees and recognizes them in some way when their performance is good..

The arousal "provides energy" to be able to perform physical activities, from moderate to intense as in the case of extreme sports and those that require high specific motor demands according to the physical activity performed..

"Tasks that require persistence can best be performed with high levels of arousal to increase motivation."

For this reason, bosses, teachers and coaches often press constantly to obtain results in a certain period of time, so that performance, performance, motivation, attention to tasks and productivity itself do not decline..

Academically, by increasing the arousal, surpassing the optimal level of the same, due to a very stressful situation for the person, for example, this increase in cortical activation will produce a reduction in the effectiveness of the performance of the tasks. Instead, emotional balance can increase learning.

There is a correspondence between optimal levels of motivation on performance and performance. Motor impulses are more easily mobilized than intellectual impulses, since they often require very complex motivation. Partly because of this, personal characteristics must be taken into account. Libet et al. (1983), showed that the potential change in the brain happens before the subject "mentally decides" what movement or action to undertake, this phenomenon is related to brain alert mechanisms.

Three Recommendations to Maintain Optimal Arousal Levels

  1. Self-observation. To maintain a good level of performance in your activities, a key step is being able to identify your emotional responses to the stimuli that are presented to you. For this, some self-observation techniques can be put into practice to make you aware of your physiological and cognitive reactions. When people are able to identify that levels of stress and anguish begin to exceed their optimal level, it is more feasible that they can apply relaxation and breathing techniques in order to modulate these states, facing situations with a more adaptable response and functional.
  2. Physical activity. Performing a sport or physical activity that you enjoy, at least 5 times a week for 30 consecutive minutes, can bring great benefits to your body and mind, it can help you reduce anxiety levels, while contributing to a feeling of general well-being.
  3. Psychotherapeutic support. When your efforts to regulate your states of distress and anxiety are not enough, you can seek psychological assistance, in this type of space you can learn techniques to manage stress, anxiety and, if necessary, you can be referred to other health professionals. health.


Distress and excessive anxiety can generate behaviors, emotions and cognitions that can become dysfunctional, be poorly adaptive or inconvenient; Some of the reactions related to distress at the cortical level are manifested by difficulty in making decisions, in focusing attention, by sleep disturbances and fatigue, among many other factors that may have a correlation with decreased performance. So it is necessary to seek balance when you want to have quality of life, learn to properly manage stress and anxiety, to modulate them to optimal levels if required, to improve or maintain performance, productivity and performance. of various tasks that we carry out in the different areas of our life.


  • Recognition and Alleviation of Pain and Distress in Laboratory Animals (1992), Institute for Laboratory Animal Research, National Research Council

Bibliographic references

  • Tamorri, Stefano, (1990). Neurosciences and sport. Sports Psychology. Athlete's mental processes. Barcelona: Editorial Paidotribo.
  • Vallejo Ruiloba, J. (1992). Introduction to psychopathology and psychiatry. Mexico: Salvat.
  • Nuñez Alonso, J.L. and Martín-Albo Lucas, J. (2004). Competition psychology. Seville: WANCEULEN, Editorial Deportiva. S.L.

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