Jacobs Study  /

Emotional Memory

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Description: Understanding effects of emotionality and stress on children’s memory has implications for educational, legal, and clinical settings. Given evidence that girls may be more reactive to stress than boys, their memory may be more affected by stress. Yet, experimental developmental studies examining this question are scarce. In this study, 143 6-to-7-year-old children were randomly allocated to the Trier Social Stress Test for Children (n = 103) or a control condition (n = 40) to examine the effects of stress and cortisol secretion on their emotional memory. 25 minutes after stressor onset, children incidentally encoded 75 items shown in front of neutral scenes. We find that across groups response-bias corrected memory was worse for low arousing negative items than neutral and positive items, especially in stressed girls, who also had worse memory for high arousing negative items. Positive items were remembered just as accurately as neutral items. Girls, compared to boys, reported higher subjective stress increases following stress exposure, and had higher cortisol stress responses. Amongst stressed girls, a higher cortisol stress response was associated with better emotional memory (low and high arousing negative and high arousing positive items). In stressed boys, higher self-reported stress increases were correlated with better overall item memory. Background scene memory was impaired by a pairing with high arousing negative items in the stress group. Thus, whilst 6-to-7-year-old boys’ memory seems rather unaffected by stress, exposure to stress worsened memory for negative items in stressed girls unless they had high levels of cortisol.

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