Moderate levels of anxiety can help aid your memory, specifically if you are trying to remember the details of an event, according to a new Canadian study from the University of Waterloo.
However, when anxiety levels get too high or turn into full-blown fear, it can lead to the coloring of memories wherein one might begin to associate otherwise neutral elements of an experience in a negative context.
“People with high anxiety have to be careful,” said co-author Dr. 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 involved 80 undergraduate students (64 females, 16 males) from the University of Waterloo. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to a deep encoding instruction group, and the other half were randomly assigned to a shallow encoding group.
Encoding is the first of three stages that psychologists use to define the learning and memory process. These stages include encoding (initial learning of information), storage (maintaining information over time), and retrieval (the ability to access the information when necessary). All of the participants also completed the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales.
The researchers discovered that the students with high levels of anxiety demonstrated heightened sensitivity to the influences of emotional context on their memory. In other words, neutral information became colored, or tainted, 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 remember that there could be individual factors in the students’ lives that could affect the retention of the material being taught and that lightening the mood during class could be beneficial.
Source: University of Waterloo