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Arousal in Psychology: Definition

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  • 0:00 What Is Arousal?
  • 0:40 What Influences Arousal?
  • 3:12 Eating and Arousal
  • 4:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Gina Mitchell
In this lesson, you'll get an overview of what arousal is, the areas of the brain that play a role in arousal, and how arousal influences your behavior. Following this, you'll be able to put what you've learned to the test by taking a quiz!

What Is Arousal?

In the context of psychology, arousal is the state of being physiologically alert, awake, and attentive. Arousal is primarily controlled by the reticular activating system (RAS) in the brain. The RAS is located in the brain stem and projects to many other brain areas, including the cortex.

You can think of the reticular activating system as a pacemaker for arousal. When the system slows down, you might feel lethargic, sleepy, or have difficulty concentrating on things. When the system speeds up, you might feel highly active, be alert, and be ready to respond to different things in the environment.

What Influences Arousal?

The RAS and your arousal level are influenced by a number of different things, such as your emotions, the foods you eat, and the neurotransmitters in the brain.

The neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and acetylcholine all play a role in the functioning of the RAS. Higher levels of these neurotransmitters leads to higher states of arousal and attention to different stimuli.

For example, if you were hiking in the woods and started to hear sounds of an animal coming toward you, your RAS would activate and levels of norepinephrine would increase. As the levels of norepinephrine increase, you would become more aroused and alert. Because the RAS projects to other areas of the brain, it would also make you more alert to the sensory information in your environment. You might be more sensitive to the sounds of the animal or to other smells. The increased arousal would also prepare you to respond to the situation. You would be ready to run from the animal or fight it off if needed.

In some cases, though, our arousal level can get too high and rather than preparing us to flee or fight, it might lead to freezing up.

For example, say that you have an important piano recital coming up. Being nervous for the recital is a common reaction that serves to prepare your body for the performance. The nervousness increases the activity of the RAS and causes arousal. However, some individuals might become so aroused that they can't perform at all. They might even 'forget' how to play the piano! In this case, the individual's arousal level is too high and performance begins to deteriorate.

For other individuals, events like a piano recital, a basketball game, or a speech might not cause nervousness, though. In this case, the body doesn't respond enough for the event. There's no release of neurotransmitters to increase arousal. When arousal level is low, the individual will not be able to perform because they aren't alert to things in the environment.

This relationship between high arousal, low arousal, and performance is described by the Yerkes-Dodson law. According to this law, performance suffers when arousal is either too high or too low. Instead, there's an optimized level of arousal which will produce optimal performance.

Other emotions, like anger or happiness, can also change our arousal level. Anger is associated with higher levels of arousal and in many cases leads to decreased performance. Happiness, on the other hand, might lead to increased relaxation and low levels of arousal, also leading to decreases in performance.

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