Building stress-resistant memories

November 24, 2016

Though it's widely assumed that stress zaps a person's ability to recall memory, it doesn't have that effect when memory is tested immediately after a taxing event, and when subjects have engaged in a highly effective learning technique, a new study reports. The results call into question the growing consensus that stress generally impairs memory retrieval. In the last decade, studies done on memory and stress have largely involved participants that were not guided in how to learn new material -- often simply attempting to memorize it by rereading or restudying, strategies known to build weak recollections. Thus, it has been unclear whether all memories are subject to the detrimental effects of stress, or whether only weakly encoded ones are vulnerable. Also complicating past studies, most participants were tested 25 minutes after a stressful event, when cortisol levels were highest in the blood. Here, to explore both areas' impact on memory, Amy Smith and colleagues invited 120 participants to study images. Sixty participants then restudied them, while the other sixty were asked to engage in "retrieval practice," recalling as many as they could, an approach consistently shown to yield better long-term memory. The following day, both groups underwent a stressful situation and then were asked to recall images from the previous day five minutes later. Stressed individuals who had only "restudied" content the day before recalled fewer items than their non-stressed re-studying counterparts, while -for both stressed and non-stressed "retrieval practice" participants - recall was nearly the same, as if stress wasn't present. What's more, retrieval practice participants who underwent stress still outperformed non-stressed participants who only restudied content.
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

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