Do Negative Emotions Make Stronger Memories?


Bad feelings, like anger or fear, can enhance your memory for places, a new study verifies.

Oliver Baumann from the Queensland Brain Institute found that associating negative imagery with specific locations activates a part of the brain responsible for forming memory of places during navigation, the parahippocampal cortex:

“This heightened recall occurs automatically, without people even being aware that the negative imagery is affecting their memories. Our findings show that emotions can exert a powerful influence on spatial and navigational memory for places. It could serve as a cue for avoiding potential threats. In future we might be able to boost memory functions by triggering the positive side-effects of emotional arousal, while avoiding the need for negative experiences.”

In the study, Professor Jason Mattingley built a “virtual house” and staged events in each room unrelated to the subject navigating the house. The events were designed to elicit an emotional response—positive, negative, or neutral, and varied in their rate of occurrence.

“The events were illustrated using images from the International Affective Picture System library and included dramatic scenes of attack and threat, as well as more pleasant imagery,” Baumann says.

The day after navigating through the house, participants viewed static images of the house without the emotional imagery, while their neural activity was recorded using an MRI scanner.

“The results showed that emotional arousal exerted a powerful influence on memory by enhancing parahippocampal activity,”

Baumann explains.

A later study has shown, however, that a person’s later memories, and negative impressions, can be weakened by concentrating on the neutral details of a disturbing scene.

When participants concentrated on the foreground of images with negative content, they gave the images a more negative rating. They still rated the images as negative, but they did so less negatively when concentrating on the neutral backgrounds of photos with negative content.

  1. Edgar Chan, Oliver Baumann, Mark A. Bellgrove, and Jason B. Mattingley
    Negative Emotional Experiences during Navigation Enhance Parahippocampal Activity during Recall of Place Information
    Cogn Neurosci. 26, 154–64 (2014) doi:10.1162/jocn_a_00468


Last Updated on February 17, 2023