Converging lines of evidence indicate that stress either before or after learning influences memory. Surprisingly little is known about how memory is affected when people learn while they are stressed. Here, we examined the impact of learning under stress in 48 healthy young men and women. Participants were exposed to stress (socially evaluated cold pressor test) or a control condition while they learned emotional words and neutral words that were either conceptually associated with or unrelated to the stressor. Memory was assessed in free recall and recognition tests 24h after learning. Learning under stress reduced both free recall and recognition performance, irrespective of the emotionality and the stress context relatedness of the words. While the effect of stress was comparable in men and women, women outperformed men in the free recall test. These findings show a memory impairing effect of learning under stress in humans and challenge some assumptions of current theories about the impact of stress around the time of learning on memory formation.
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