The dynamic interplay between acute psychosocial stress, emotion and autobiographical memory

Scientific Reports


Although acute psychosocial stress can impact autobiographical memory retrieval, the nature of this effect is not entirely clear. One reason for this ambiguity is because stress can have opposing effects on the different stages of autobiographical memory retrieval. We addressed this issue by testing how acute stress affects three stages of the autobiographical memory retrieval – accessing, recollecting and reconsolidating a memory. We also investigate the influence of emotion valence on this effect. In a between-subjects design, participants were first exposed to an acute psychosocial stressor or a control task. Next, the participants were shown positive, negative or neutral retrieval cues and asked to access and describe autobiographical memories. After a three to four day delay, participants returned for a second session in which they described these autobiographical memories. During initial retrieval, stressed participants were slower to access memories than were control participants; moreover, cortisol levels were positively associated with response times to access positively-cued memories. There were no effects of stress on the amount of details used to describe memories during initial retrieval, but stress did influence memory detail during session two. During session two, stressed participants recovered significantly more details, particularly emotional ones, from the remembered events than control participants. Our results indicate that the presence of stress impairs the ability to access consolidated autobiographical memories; moreover, although stress has no effect on memory recollection, stress alters how recollected experiences are reconsolidated back into memory traces.