Negative Emotion Enhances Memory?

Negative emotions actually enhance a person’s memory.  Who would have thought that it was all the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elms street movies that we watched after school that would make us the geniuses we are today?  Well, it turns out it just might be according to an article in The Behavioral Medicine Report .

Bridgid Finn, PhD, researcher in psychology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, purports, “Memory is labile and dynamic – after you retrieve something, you’re still engaged in processing that information in some way.  We’ve established that the period after retrieval is key in retaining information.”

Finn states that learning is enhanced by (negative) emotion.  Researchers did three different types of tests to examine their hypothesis.  In the initial study, which was published in the June 2011 issue of Psychology Science, 40 students were tested and showed that the process involved in retrieving an item does not end when that item is retrieved.   The experiment revealed that participants did best on items that had been followed by negative pictures.

Why is this and does this work with positive images and memory?  So far research has suggested that positive images do not enhance a person’s memory.  Scientists find that a negative picture can enhance later retention due to the close relationship between areas (amygdala and hippocampus) involved in  negative emotion and remembering.

A second experiment was designed to explore the limits of the enhancement effect.   “…the students continue to process the information during the two second pause,” Finn says.  The third and final study involved 61 students and was intended to rule out the possibility that arousing images simply made certain pairs of words seem more distinct; therefore, easier to remember.

“For negative emotion to enhance later retention of something, this experiment shows that you have to retrieve that information,” Finn states. “That is, you have to go get it. In the absence of retrieval, the negative pictures do not enhance later performance. That’s critical.”

What are your thoughts on this study?  What applications of this study do you see in the future?

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One response to “Negative Emotion Enhances Memory?”

  1. Ian Trudel says:

    Harry Lorayne is a memory expert and advocates remembering through funny/amusing associations. For example, if you have to remember fish and chair, you’d imagine a giant fish sitting on a chair or yourself sitting on a giant fish in a chair-shape. It does work effectively but I think it’s a bit different than positive images as described above. A positive image could be someone smiling: it does feel good but is likely to lack of emotional intensity. We, human beings, also tend to learn from negative experience by design.

    Reading suggestions: Complete Guide to Memory Mastery by Harry Lorayne and How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer.


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