Timing matters: Temporal dynamics of stress effects on memory retrieval
Stress may impair memory retrieval. This retrieval impairment has been attributed to the action of the stress hormone cortisol, which is released with a delay of several minutes after a stressful encounter. Hence, most studies tested memory retrieval 20–30 min after stress, when the stress-induced cortisol increase peaks. In the present experiment, we investigated whether retrieval impairments can also be found at later intervals after stress. To this end, participants learned a list of words on day 1. Twenty-four hours later, they were first exposed to a stressor or a nonstressful control manipulation and completed a recognition test for the words either immediately thereafter, 25 min later, or 90 min later. Our findings showed that stress did not impair memory retrieval when memory was tested immediately after the stressor, before cortisol levels were elevated. However, retrieval performance was impaired 25 min after stress, when cortisol levels peaked, as well as 90 min after the stressor, when cortisol levels had already returned to baseline. The retrieval impairment 90 min after stress appeared to be even stronger than the one after 25 min. These findings suggest that the detrimental effects of stress on retrieval performance may last longer than is usually assumed.
KeywordsMemory Retrieval Stress Cortisol
We thank Julia Bonk, Valerie Kinner, and Carsten Siebert for their help during data collection. The study was supported by a grant of the German Research Foundation (DFG; SCHW1357/5-3).
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