Kimberly Bress

I placed the onions on the cutting board, pulled my sharpest knife from the kitchen drawer and began chopping.

The flaky exterior sheath of the vegetable quickly fell apart, followed by layer after layer of the pungent and fleshy vegetable. As my blade cut deeper into the onion, a burning sensation wafted into my nose, prickling into my eyes. Involuntary tears began streaming down my face, as if lamenting the death of an innocent onion. Furiously trying to blink away the burning sensation, I turned away from the countertop.

At this exact moment, my roommate walked into the room. “Kim, do you happen to know-” she froze mid-question, interrupted by the sight of me standing in the kitchen, crying with knife in hand. “Are you okay?” The disconcertion in her voice was well warranted given the perceived circumstances of the current predicament. I laughed, opening my left hand to reveal the remaining nub of my onion. She sighed, held a hand to her heart and then laughed along with me.

The analogy comparing problem solving to onion peeling is well for wear. Like onions, problems have layers. Cutting deeper into the onion exposes more of its natural chemical irritant, while delving into a problem exposes more of its inherent complexities. However, there is an interesting, much less explored facet of this cliché. Why do both onion peeling and problem solving reduce people to tears?

Half of this question is easy to answer. We know that when you cut an onion, you release propanethiol S-oxide, a volatile sulfur compound that reacts with the water in your eyes to form sulfuric acid. This uncomfortable acidity motivates the production of tears. In short, we cry while chopping onions because of acidic stress in the tear ducts. In a similar way, problem solving induces stress by requiring a person to deal with difficult, dissonant circumstances. However, the mechanism for this relationship is not as well understood.

Recent studies by university researchers are beginning to explore how problem solving and stress affect one another. University of Missouri associate professor David Beversdorf is one of these researchers, using a simply designed study to observe how stress interferes with problem solving. Although stress is a very subjective term, Beversdorf hypothesized that watching graphically violent or emotional scenes in a movie can induce enough stress to interfere with problem solving abilities.

After showing participants two different movies (“Saving Private Ryan” and “Shrek”), participants took a test to assess their verbal mental flexibility.

“Performance on the tests was significantly impaired after the 'Saving Private Ryan' clip as compared to after the 'Shrek' clip,” Beversdorf said. “Essentially, we propose that a state of arousal resulting from stress inhibits a person's ability to access mental resources to solve problems in a flexible manner under stressful circumstances, and that a specific system in the brain may be responsible for that effect.”

While these findings are certainly interesting, they present a one-dimensional view of the relationship between stress and problem solving. Researchers from the University of Missouri conducted a study on the relationship between self-appraised problem solving abilities, stress and suicidal thoughts. The results of their work indicated that high negative life stress and self-appraised ineffective problem solving are associated with higher frequency of suicidal thoughts and feelings of hopelessness. Independent of stress level, subjects who were less effective problem solvers reported significantly more thoughts of suicide and hopelessness. These findings evoke even more questions about the nature of the relationship between problem solving and stress. While we know that cutting an onion causes crying (and not the other way around), the relationship between problem solving and stress is more multidirectional. Were some participants more effective problem solvers because they were less stressed, or were they less stressed because they were more effective problem solvers? Is there a relationship between the development of problem solving abilities and mental health?

Answering these questions is essential for improving and developing our ability to solve problems and think critically. As we continue to peel back the layers of this complex skill, we will gain a better understanding of the emotional and psychological mechanisms underlying it. In the meantime, just tell my roommate not to be concerned when she finds me in the kitchen, wearing a pair of swim goggles and chopping onions. Problem solving at its finest.

Kimberly Bress is a sophomore in neuroscience.She can be reached at

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