Undergraduate students at the Washington University in St. Louis were given memory tests to determine the effects of negative emotions have on recall and retention. Bridgid Finn, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher in psychology in Arts & Sciences, said, “Memory is labile and dynamic – after you retrieve something, you’re still engaged in processing that information in some way.” The study showed that test subjects had improved retention when they viewed frightening or negative images immediately after retrieval. The researchers say that the negative emotion actually enhances learning. “Having a picture of a gun pointed at you just after you’ve just been tested on something probably isn’t the best situation for learning, but because there is an intricate relationship between areas involved in emotion and remembering, the amygdala and the hippocampus, we find that the negative picture can enhance later retention,” says Finn.
The students were all tested for recall after studying several pairs of words. They were shown either a negative or neutral image after citing the correct answer. When their recall was tested later, those who viewed the emotionally negative images scored better. “For negative emotion to enhance later retention of something, this experiment shows that you have to retrieve that information,” Finn says. “That is, you have to go get it. In the absence of retrieval, the negative pictures do not enhance later performance. That’s critical.”
The researchers also showed the participants positive images, such as sexually arousing pictures, or happy images, in order to see if this affected recall. “Positive content, so far, doesn’t seem to be doing the trick,” says Finn. The researchers hope that their findings lead to further studies on exploring what factors influence memory recall. “We’ve established that the period after retrieval is key in retaining information,” Finn says. “We want to build on that foundation and explore it in depth. We want to see what kinds of manipulations can possibly be introduced in the post-retrieval phase to understand when enhancement or impairment of retention might occur.”
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