The influence of autonomic arousal and semantic relatedness on memory for emotional words

Int J Psychophysiol. 2006 Jul;61(1):26-33. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2005.10.022. Epub 2006 Jan 19.


Increased memory for emotional stimuli is a well-documented phenomenon. Emotional arousal during the encoding of a stimulus is one mediator of this memory enhancement. Other variables such as semantic relatedness also play a role in the enhanced memory for emotional stimuli, especially for verbal stimuli. Research has not addressed the contributions of emotional arousal, indexed by self-report and autonomic measures, and semantic relatedness on memory performance. Twenty young adults (10 women) were presented neutral-unrelated words, school-related words, moderately arousing emotional words, and highly arousing taboo words while heart rate and skin conductance were measured. Memory was tested with free recall and recognition tests. Results showed that taboo words, which were both semantically related and high arousal were remembered best. School-related words, which were high on semantic relatedness but low on arousal, were remembered better than the moderately arousing emotional words and semantically unrelated neutral words. Psychophysiological responses showed that within the moderately arousing emotional and neutral word groups, those words eliciting greater autonomic activity were better remembered than words that did not elicit such activity. These results demonstrate additive effects of semantic relatedness and emotional arousal on memory. Relatedness confers an advantage to memory (as in the school-words), but the combination of relatedness and arousal (as in the taboo words) results in the best memory performance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Attention / physiology
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Galvanic Skin Response / physiology*
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Semantics*
  • Taboo
  • Verbal Learning / physiology*