Pre-learning stress differentially affects long-term memory for emotional words, depending on temporal proximity to the learning experience.
Stress exerts a profound, yet complex, influence on learning and memory and can enhance, impair or have no effect on these processes. Here, we have examined how the administration of stress at different times before learning affects long-term (24-hr) memory for neutral and emotional information. Participants submerged their dominant hand into a bath of ice cold water (Stress) or into a bath of warm water (No Stress) for 3 min. Either immediately (Exp. 1) or 30 minutes (Exp. 2) after the water bath manipulation, participants were presented with a list of 30 words varying in emotional valence. The next day, participants’ memory for the word list was assessed via free recall and recognition tests. In both experiments, stressed participants exhibited greater blood pressure, salivary cortisol levels, and subjective pain and stress ratings than non-stressed participants in response to the
water bath manipulation. Stress applied immediately prior to learning (Exp. 1) enhanced the recognition of positive words, while stress applied 30 min prior to learning (Exp. 2) impaired free recall of negative words. Participants’ recognition of positive words in Experiment 1 was positively associated with their heart rate responses to the water bath manipulation, while participants’ free recall of negative words in Experiment 2 was negatively associated with their blood pressure and cortisol responses to the water bath manipulation. These findings indicate that the differential effects of pre-learning stress on long-term memory may depend on the temporal proximity of the stressor to the learning experience and the emotional nature of the to-be-learned information.