Negative Emotions May Improve Memory

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.”

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Kyle

    Kyle

    June 23rd, 2011 at 4:24 AM

    In a way it is kind of sad that the things in life that we are destined to remember and hold onto are the negative things and not the positive. How to channel this into remembering and cherishing the good parts of life is now the question. . .

  • nate

    nate

    June 23rd, 2011 at 11:08 AM

    could it be because after having recalled something and then viewing a negative image,we inherently want to forget the negative image and therefore all our attention goes on to the recently-recalled thing,thereby ensuring it’s retention?!

    you see,if you learn something and immediately view a pleasant image then your attention is divided etwren the two,thereby not letting you have the same levels of retention that you would had you viewed a negative image!

  • Desmond.F

    Desmond.F

    June 24th, 2011 at 4:37 PM

    I just think it depends on the personality of the individual.If he’s a pessimist then he will retain negative memories better and if he’s an optimist he will better remember the positive things.What do you guys think?

  • Ty Millford

    Ty Millford

    June 25th, 2011 at 3:47 PM

    Well that explains why my brain likes to constantly harass me by bringing up memories that I’d rather forget about. Despite them being relatively minor occurrences of bullying that happened ten, fifteen years ago I can’t get them to pipe down.

  • K.S.R

    K.S.R

    June 25th, 2011 at 5:06 PM

    @Ty– I know exactly what you mean. We forget things so easily yet those minor wrongs and guilt trips constantly nag at us as though the fate of the world hangs in the balance unless we redeem ourselves.

    Okay brain, you win. Let’s go and find that 100 year old lady that I stuck my tongue out at in 1982.

  • P.L.T

    P.L.T

    June 25th, 2011 at 5:25 PM

    @Kyle–It’s a primal instinct to recall negative situations strongly. It helps us avoid them the next time. You would remember stuff like drinking vinegar or burning your hand because the brain and body do everything possible to preserve its life. Remembering how your body reacted serves a purpose.

    Remembering good stuff isn’t prioritized by that survival mechanism as much as remembering the bad stuff. Hence why the good gets forgotten more easily I think. We need to make a point of remember the good to consciously reinforce that in our minds.

  • nicolahyde

    nicolahyde

    June 25th, 2011 at 5:41 PM

    @nate : Repetition makes the subject stick in your brain. It’s how we learn our alphabet for example, or our multiplication tables. That will also happen when we go over and over bad thoughts, images or memories.

    I think you will get them out of your head if you face them head on and resolve to let them go instead of allowing them to arise unbidden anytime your mind wanders.

  • Sara Z.

    Sara Z.

    June 27th, 2011 at 9:36 PM

    It really ticks me off that our supposedly very intelligent minds can’t store information and keep what we want, and at the same time erase parts that we don’t want easily.

    If we could train ourselves to wipe a traumatic memory from our brains, we’d all be a lot happier.

  • paula c. mercer

    paula c. mercer

    June 29th, 2011 at 3:20 PM

    @Sara: You think so? I don’t. I’d rather have my issues and be a whole person, warts and all, than have memories that didn’t reflect all my life experiences, good or bad. I think you would be a watered-down version of yourself if you could do that. And you would always wonder what was missing that was there before.

    No, that doesn’t float my boat.

  • T.Wills

    T.Wills

    July 2nd, 2011 at 7:55 PM

    @Sara-Let’s say for argument’s sake that you could indeed wipe traumatic memories. Where would all the great spiritual teachers and leaders of the future come from?

    The greatest of all arose because, having suffered adversity in their own lives that they overcame, they wanted to make the world a better place.

    No, I’ll keep my imperfect self thanks very much and hope one day to make a difference.

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