By Christopher Fisher, PhD
Picture a menacing drill sergeant, a gory slaughterhouse, a devastating scene of a natural disaster. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have found that viewing such emotion-laden images immediately after taking a test actually enhances people’s retention of the tested material. The data the researchers gathered in recent studies are the first to show that negative arousal following successful retrieval of information enhances later recall of that information.
The finding is counterintuitive. One would think that viewing a negative scene would tend to blot out anything learned before seeing the image. Instead, learning is enhanced by the (negative) emotion, says Bridgid Finn, PhD, postdoctoral researcher in psychology in Arts & Sciences. “Memory is labile and dynamic – after you retrieve something, you’re still engaged in processing that information in some way,” Finn says.