Home > Memory > Down in the Dumps? Having Trouble Studying for that Test? Turn that Frown Upside Down for Better Associative Memory

Down in the Dumps? Having Trouble Studying for that Test? Turn that Frown Upside Down for Better Associative Memory

We’ve all been there before: It’s the end of the first semester at Colby College, your work is piling up, the temperature is plummeting amidst strong unrelenting and merciless winds, and sunshine is beginning to slip away at the premature hour of 4 pm. You just feel, well, bad. You are experiencing all of this negative emotion during this stressful time, and you can’t seem to shake it! Well, better get yourself a Happy Light to shoo away that Seasonal Affective Disorder because if you want your memory to be in tip-top shape so you can conquer your final exams, you may need to turn that frown upside down.

Previous research has suggested that memories of events that are infused with high levels of emotion can facilitate an individual’s ability to recall those memories (Brown & Kulik, 1977). Emotional events that occur in our everyday lives are usually remembered well, whereas neutral events do not reside as vividly in our memory. This phenomenon is evident in the existence of flashbulb memories, which are vivid and poignant memories of specific events that are assessed in the moment of the event, but are retained in long-term memory. For instance, you might have a visual snapshot of the time you labored for long hours to concoct a birthday cake for your Great Aunt Patricia, and then tripped over a small beetle, causing the cake to hurdle to its death on the unforgiving kitchen floor! Surely you are never going to forget that incident. (Even though you may desperately want to).

I mean, think about it. Do you remember the last time you dropped your pencil and picked it up? Probably not. What if you dropped your pencil and your all-time favorite campus crush picked it up, handed it to you, smiled, and said “Hey.” You are probably going to hold on to that memory of The Time That Bradley Picked Up My Pencil For Me In Bio Lab, because that memory is attached to an emotion, an emotion of LUV!


Hey Bradley <3

When we think of memory, we often view it as a singular collective unit. However, there are ways in which we can break down and further define specific types of memory. Let’s use the “Bradley Pencil Memory” to break it down: When you recall that fateful day, you will probably remember different aspects of the event, such as the details about the people or objects involved in the memory. For instance, you may recall Bradley’s vintage wash jeans, and the way that his hair shone in the light as he bent down to retrieve your neon-green Easter egg pencil. This would be an example of a form of memory called item memory. Another form of memory, called associative memory, occurs when we recall the “when” and “where” aspects of an event. Here, we are talking about the specific Bio Lab classroom that housed the romantic meeting, or the position of the sun in the sky, indicating the time of day, (which would obviously paint the picture of a sunset at dusk).

If the efficiency of memory is affected by emotion, and we have these two separate types laid out before us, could emotion affect one type in different ways than the other? Researchers in the present study, Negative affect impairs associative memory but not item memory, set out to answer this question (Bisby & Burgess, 2013). Specifically, they wondered if there was a difference in the way that negative emotion interacts with item memory and associative memory.

In the first experiment, participants were charged with the task of encoding, or processing an equal number of neutral and negative item images presented to them on a computer screen, (40 neutral, 40 negative). Participants also viewed four different images of background scenes, presented one after the other, (desert, arctic, city, and countryside). After viewing each item image, and each background scene, an image-context phase ensued, during which either a neutral or negative item image appeared in combination with any of the four background scenes. There were several trials of this, pairing different item images with different backgrounds. 24 hours later, all participants returned to testing and were given a surprise memory test of the image-context combinations that they saw. The surprise memory test contained item images that the participants had never seen before, intermingled with item images that they had previously seen. Participants were charged with the task of first identifying if the item image flashed before them was new (one they had never seen before) or old (one they saw the day before). If the item image was recognized as old, the four varying background scenes flashed on the next screen, and the participant had to match the item image with the background scene it was originally presented with.

Neutral item image with context background scene

Neutral item image with context background scene


Negative item image with context background scene

Interestingly enough, results indicated that negative emotion had no debilitating effect on item memory, as participants recognized negative item images (such as Liam Neeson about to take revenge on you for kidnapping his daughter) better (in both speed and accuracy of item identification), than they recognized neutral item images, (such as a nice, calm headshot of Liam). However, when context was introduced to the experiment by combining the item images with the varying background scenes, participants showed deficits in associative memory, when they attempted to match the negative item images with their correct originally depicted background. In fact, people were better at matching the neutral item images with their originally depicted background scenes!

But wait! It ain’t over till the fat lady sings! These guys thought it would be fun to add even more negative emotion to this situation, so they conducted a second experiment. Essentially, this experiment was the same as the first, but with a twist! Before any encoding phases occurred, participants were shown all four possible background scenes that they would be presented with, and they were told that any time they saw two of the scenes, they should think of these as “threat scenes.” With the presentation of the threat scenes, participants would sometimes receive a mild electric shock to the wrist! That’ll make ‘em sweat! Participants were told that they should perceive the other two background scenes as “safety scenes,” because when they saw these ones, they got no shock!

Low and behold, these results to experiment two show us a similar pattern! Associative memory for matching contexts with the item images was still reduced when a negative item image was involved, (whether that be with the safety scenes or the threat scenes). So, what did the shocking tell us? Well, the answer actually isn’t all that shocking. Ahem… The presence of a threat did impair associative memory. Participants were not as good at matching the threat scenes with their appropriate item images as they were at matching the safety scenes with their appropriate item images.

Uhhhhh okaaaaay, so why should I care about this again? Well, you do get a little kick of excitement when you receive an A on your exam, don’t you? I know you do! Okay, well, then, all you have to do is make sure you never feel any negative emotion EVER AGAIN and then you’ll get that 4.0 GPA you always dreamed of achieving! Associative memory can help you out tremendously during a test-taking situation. Say you can’t remember the name of a specific term you need to write about in a free response. You think back to the day in class you learned the material, (putting yourself in the context of that lesson), and you see a slide from the PowerPoint, on the slide, you remember seeing an angle, and your eyes travel upward toward the angel’s halo…Aha! The halo effect! That’s the name of the term you were looking for! Aren’t you glad your perpetually happy demeanor allowed you to retrieve that term through your associative memory? So, on exam day, wake up, eat a nutritious breakfast, and put on a happy face!


Bisby, J., & Burgess, N. (2013). Negative affect impairs associative memory but not item memory. Learning & Memory, 760-   766. doi:10.1101/lm.032409.113

Brown, R., & Kulik, J. (1977). Flashbulb memories. Cognition. 73-99. doi: 10.10/0010-0277(77)90018-X








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