Don’t try this at home or in school just yet: anxiety can help your memory (but it has several downsides)

Ok, the title was maybe a bit of clickbait, still I’ve seen worse conclusions made in the past based on research:  a study from the University of Waterloo has found that anxiety can help people to remember things. Still, I know that math-anxiety does the opposite to a math-exam, so the key word is probably can.

An extra reason why I wrote the title is because this experiment actually was meant for educators, but that another key concept is manageable levels of optimal anxiety . Manage that…

From the press release (bold are some warning signs made bold by me):

Anxiety can help people to remember things, a study from the University of Waterloo has found.

The study of 80 undergraduate students found that manageable levels of anxiety actually aided people in being able to recall the details of events.

It also found that when anxiety levels got too high or descended into fear, it could lead to the colouring of memories where people begin to associate otherwise neutral elements of an experience to the negative context.

“People with high anxiety have to be careful,” said co-author Myra Fernandes, professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo.

“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 saw 80 undergraduate students from the University of Waterloo (64 females) complete the experiment. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to a deep encoding instruction group while the other half were randomly assigned to a shallow encoding group. All participants completed the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales.

It was discovered that individuals high in anxiety showed a heightened sensitivity to the influences of emotional context on their memory, with neutral information becoming tainted, or coloured by the emotion with which it was associated during encoding

“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,” said Christopher Lee, a psychology Ph. D. candidate at Waterloo. “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.”

Fernandes also said that for educators, it is important to be mindful that there could be individual factors that influence the retention of the material they are teaching and that lightening the mood when teaching could be beneficial.

Abstract of the study:

We investigated whether anxious individuals, who adopt an inherently negative mindset, demonstrate a particularly salient memory bias for words tainted by negative contexts. To this end, sequentially presented target words, overlayed onto negative or neutral pictures, were studied in separate blocks (within-subjects) using a deep or shallow encoding instruction (between-subjects). Following study, in Test 1, participants completed separate recognition test blocks for the words overlayed onto the negative and the neutral contexts. Following this, in Test 2, participants completed a recognition test for the foils from each Test 1 block. We found a significant three-way interaction on Test 2, such that individuals with high anxiety who initially studied target words using a shallow encoding instruction, demonstrated significantly elevated memory for foils that were contained within the negative Test 1 block. Results show that during retrieval (Test 1), participants re-entered the mode of processing (negative or neutral) engaged at encoding, tainting the encoding of foils with that same mode of processing. The findings suggest that individuals with high relative to low anxiety, adopt a particularly salient negative retrieval mode, and this creates a downstream bias in encoding and subsequent retrieval of otherwise neutral information.

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Filed under Education, Psychology, Research

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