Are grisly photos the key to memory?



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.

“Having a picture of a gun pointed at you just after you’ve just been tested on something probably isn’t the best situation for learning, but because there is an intricate relationship between areas involved in emotion and remembering, the amygdala and the hippocampus, we find that the negative picture can enhance later retention.”


“For negative emotion to enhance later retention of something, this experiment shows that you have to retrieve that information,” Finn says. “That is, you have to go get it. In the absence of retrieval, the negative pictures do not enhance later performance. That’s critical.”

The study revealed no gender differences in participants’ success rates. Finn and Roediger did not measure the effects of physiological parameters such as adrenaline or hormonal responses in connection with the negative arousal.

Importantly, other studies Finn and Roediger are doing thus far show that positive images do not enhance retrieval or retention. For instance, preliminary data on a study of participants who were tested on items that were followed by sexually arousing images show no learning enhancement. While the pictures were arousing, they weren’t linked to enhanced retrieval on the later test.


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