Negative emotion enhances mnemonic precision and subjective feelings of remembering in visual long-term memory

Cognition. 2017 Sep;166:73-83. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2017.05.025. Epub 2017 May 26.


Negative emotion sometimes enhances memory (higher accuracy and/or vividness, e.g., flashbulb memories). The present study investigates whether it is the qualitative (precision) or quantitative (the probability of successful retrieval) aspect of memory that drives these effects. In a visual long-term memory task, observers memorized colors (Experiment 1a) or orientations (Experiment 1b) of sequentially presented everyday objects under negative, neutral, or positive emotions induced with International Affective Picture System images. In a subsequent test phase, observers reconstructed objects' colors or orientations using the method of adjustment. We found that mnemonic precision was enhanced under the negative condition relative to the neutral and positive conditions. In contrast, the probability of successful retrieval was comparable across the emotion conditions. Furthermore, the boost in memory precision was associated with elevated subjective feelings of remembering (vividness and confidence) and metacognitive sensitivity in Experiment 2. Altogether, these findings suggest a novel precision-based account for emotional memories.

Keywords: Emotion; Memory; Quality; Quantity; Vividness.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Color
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Long-Term / physiology*
  • Orientation / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult