fMRI images of a brain during a memory task (not from the present study). (credit: Walter Reed National Military Medical Center)

A group of researchers has constructed an experiment to examine how emotional experiences affect the formation of memories. It’s already well-documented that emotional experiences are not only more likely to be recorded in memory. But emotional events also affect unrelated memories, strengthening the recall of unassociated events that happened just before the emotional surge. The new study looks at the flipside of that—how long an emotional event affects memory after the stimulation ends. This is a relatively unexplored area of research.

To find out, the researchers constructed a test using an fMRI. One group of participants was exposed to emotional stimuli for about 23 minutes, followed by a nine-minute rest, followed by a 23-minute period with emotionally neutral stimuli. The second group had these experiences reversed a neutral period followed by a rest and then some emotionally charged experiences. The final group simply had two emotionally neutral periods with the same gap between them.

The researchers hypothesized that the emotional period's influence on memory would last into the neutral period. If this is correct, the first setup—emotional then neutral—should trigger improved memory during the neutral period. The other two arrangements, however, shouldn’t have this effect if the researchers’ hypothesis is accurate.

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