Stress and Memory

Stress at the time of memory encoding, consolidation, and retrieval can influence memory function. After President Kennedy's assassination, many people were able to remember where they were and what they were doing at the time (more than they could remember, say, what they ate for breakfast on that same date). This phenomenon came to be called "flashbulb memories" and became a subject of investigation (Brown & Kulik, 1977).

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt on President Reagan, stronger emotional reactions to hearing the news were associated with greater consistency of recall of the details of personal circumstances at the time of hearing the news from 1 to 7 months after the event (Pille-mer, 1984). Some studies of the January 28, 1986, Challenger space shuttle explosion (Bohannon, 1988; Bohannon & Symons, 1992)—but not others (Neisser & Harsch, 1992)—showed a relation between emotional upset at the time the news was received and ability to recall personal circumstances several months after the explosion. Furthermore, a relation has been found between high emotionality and surprise and vividness of memories related to personal events (as opposed to national events) (Rubin & Kozin, 1984).

Experimental paradigms have also been used to assess the effects of stress on memory. Subjects exposed to a shocking film in which a young boy is shot in the face had impaired recall of details that preceded the violent act in the film (Loftus & Burns, 1982) and of words associated with the face (Christianson & Nilsson, 1984) relative to subjects who viewed a neutral film. In another study, subjects who viewed traumatic slides in which someone had been injured had better recall of central details and worse recall of peripheral details in comparison to those who viewed neutral slides (Christianson & Loftus, 1987, 1991). Subjects shown pictures of a crime scene focused on a gun or a knife to the exclusion of other details such as the faces in the picture, even after controlling for eye fixation on the central details of the scene (Christianson, Loftus, Hoffman, & Loftus, 1991). These studies showed that stress and emotion can enhance some aspects of memories and diminish others.

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