What is it about?

The so-called Yerkes-Dodson law from 1908 states that humans (and other animals) perform tasks optimally during mid-level arousal states (alert) and suboptimally during either low (drowsy) or high states of arousal (stressed or over-active). Despite the enduring popularity of the law, empirical results were mixed. Using pupil size as an index of arousal, we show that humans indeed perform best at moderate levels of arousal across multiple tasks, confirming the validity of the Yerkes-Dodson Law. To explain the neural mechanisms underlying the Yerkes-Dodson law, we constructed a computational neural network model which revealed the complex interplay of several cell types in the brain. Specifically, it showed how that interplay regulates the activity of neurons involved in decision-making as a function of arousal.

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Why is it important?

Even though there was limited empirical support for the Yerkes-Dodson law, it was considered to be a psychological principle for the past decades. We show that humans perform optimally at intermediate levels of arousal across multiple different tasks, in line with the Yerkes-Dodson law. Moreover, we provide a possible neural mechanism that explains how arousal modulates performance.


Working on this article was a great pleasure as we started a new and fruitful collaboration combining experimental and computational work. This combination generated new insights into the neural underpinnings of the Yerkes-Dodson law.

Lola Beerendonk
Universiteit van Amsterdam

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This page is a summary of: A disinhibitory circuit mechanism explains a general principle of peak performance during mid-level arousal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, January 2024, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2312898121.
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