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Top 3 Reasons Why Your Brain Refuses to Study

  • Sean 

Sometimes when we sit down it feels like our brain is dead set against us focusing or getting anything done. Despite how unpleasant this feels there are common reasons behind this. Below are the top 3 reasons your brain might be working against you and how they affect your studying.

The short answer is that your brain refusing to study could be due to a variety of factors. Poor sleep, stress, or burnout are all incredibly common in university students and can cause your brain to turn against you. It is important to evaluate whether these reasons apply to you.

1. Poor Sleep

Sleeping at desk

Poor sleep is one of the main potential causes for making your brain turn against you and refuse to study. Sleep deprivation is disconcertingly common among students and adults in general. According to a study in the journal Sleep Health, 70-96% of students get less than 8 hours of sleep per night. It was also found in a study in the journal Nature, being sleep-deprived can actually be worse than being drunk in some scenarios.

Sleep is linked to a number of cognitive processes

Sleep deprivation will definitely get your brain to turn against you. Importantly, there are a number of implicated cognitive learning processes that are affected due to poor sleep.

You may think that you are not sleep-deprived but consider this. Many people who are sleep-deprived cannot tell that they are sleep deprived. You need to improve your sleep schedule and see if there is a difference in your ability to focus before you come to any conclusions about this.

2. Stress

Student stress

The American Institute of Stress found in a survey that 80% of college students experience stress frequently. This can be caused by the many new experiences that come with college or university. These include being away from home for the first time, finding new friends, social anxiety, having no money, and of course the endless assignments and deadlines that come with a full course load.

Memory processes influenced by stress

Much like sleep, stress is an extremely common factor in education and similarly could make it feel like your brain is refusing to study. A research study in the journal Nature found that stress disrupts:

  • Memory retrieval
  • Memory updating
  • Memory encoding if the stress comes long before the time of learning.

Additionally, the authors discuss that If we are stressed we cannot think of things in a flexible and fluid way. We default to a much more rigid and habit-like way of thinking. This is what trying to study under stress feels like.

Notably, some stress has actually been shown to be beneficial. Eustress is the term for positive stress and is conducive to personal improvement. Interestingly, stress actually increases memory formation up to a point during learning. But If stress is too high this benefit will quickly disappear and many students likely do not primarily experience this kind of optimal stress given the huge number of new experiences they face.

3. Burnout

Student burnout

Burnout is prevalent among students but has also recently increased. According to a study from Ohio State University, burnout increased from a prevalence of 40% among students in August 2020 to 71% in April. This report also found significant increases in unhealthy coping mechanisms, as well as anxiety and depression.

Burnout makes learning harder (for some people)

A Study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health explains that burnt-out people often report reduced problem-solving and learning capabilities. This includes lacking the ability to remember everyday things like names and upcoming appointments. Importantly, subjective reports of burnout and mental fatigue seem to last for years after its diagnosis. Apart from these individual reports, there are a number of cognitive impacts that burnout can have, these are described below by a study from the Journal of Work and Stress.

  • Inability to maintain attention
  • Inability to effectively shift attention between tasks
  • Memory (working, short-term, and long-term)

It is worth noting that not everyone experiences burnout in the same way. Some studies (1,2,3) have actually seen performance enhancement or very minimal performance loss in burnout patients. It is worth noting that the research is not entirely clear on this. It is even possible that burnout and cognitive impairment are not related. But in my experience and what I see in other people, it seems likely that they are.


What can we do about sleep, stress, and burnout? Each of these issues has a whole host of potential ways to be improved on. The most important solution is to improve your sleep (this will likely also reduce the other items on this list). That should be your starting point. Alternatively, if you are able, you can take a break from whatever you are doing and come back to later when you are refreshed.