"This heightened recall occurs automatically, without people even being aware that the negative imagery is affecting their memories," said Dr Oliver Baumann from Queensland Brain Institute.
"It could serve as a cue for avoiding potential threats. Our findings show that emotions can exert a powerful influence on spatial and navigational memory for places," Baumann said.
"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," said Baumann.
For 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 said.
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 said.
The study was published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.


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