Brief Report

Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 264-269

First online:

Nothing concentrates the mind: thoughts of death improve recall

  • Joshua HartAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, Union College Email author 
  • , Daniel J. BurnsAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, Union College


It seems likely that awareness of one’s mortality is in some respects advantageous (e.g., because it helps individuals forestall death), but little research has explored the psychological mechanisms that might confer such an advantage. Recent research has shown that processing stimuli in terms of survival relevance enhances memory relative to a host of deep-processing conditions, so it is plausible that human memory has been selected to operate more efficiently when death thoughts (e.g., survival concerns) are activated. If so, then the mortality salience as a general psychological state should be sufficient to increase recall; the present experiments show this to be the case. The enhancing effect of mortality salience on recall occurred for both incidental and intentional learning tasks, relative to a variety of comparison conditions, and did not appear to be mediated by affect or arousal. Follow-up analyses revealed the effect to be mediated by the complexity of participants’ elaborations about mortality. Potential theoretical implications are discussed.


Adaptive memory Mortality salience Survival processing Free recall