Anxiety has an unexpected effect on memory.
People with manageable levels of anxiety did better in a memory test, recalling more details, new research finds.
Anxious people’s memories are particularly good when they are in a negative mindset, even if the things they are trying to remember are neutral.
This is ironic since anxious people often feel their memory is worse than others and spend longer self-questioning.
Anxiety also serves to taint memories, however, the researchers found.
Events that might seem neutral to most people can seem negative to those feeling anxious.
Professor Myra Fernandes, study co-author, said:
“People with high anxiety have to be careful.
To some degree, there is an optimal level of anxiety that is going to benefit your memory, but we know from other research that high levels of anxiety can cause people to reach a tipping point, which impacts their memories and performance.”
The study of 80 students involved them looking at a series of pictures and later trying to recall the details.
Some pictures elicited negative emotions (a car wreck), while others were neutral (of a ship).
What anxious people remembered, the results showed, was highly dependent on whether the image was negative or not.
Negative images boosted anxious people’s recall of the image.
Mr Christopher Lee, the study’s first author, said:
“By thinking about emotional events or by thinking about negative events this might put you in a negative mindset that can bias you or change the way you perceive your current environment.
So, I think for the general public it is important to be aware of what biases you might bring to the table or what particular mindset you might be viewing the world in and how that might ultimately shape what we walk away seeing.”
The study was published in the journal Brain Sciences (Lee & Fernandes, 2017).