If you want the specific details of an unpleasant or “emotionally provocative” experience recalled, University of Montreal research suggests that asking the male who was present instead of the female might lead to a more accurate description.

“Very few studies have looked at how ‘valence’ and ‘arousal’ affect memories independently of each other, that is to say, how attractive or repulsive we find an experience and how emotionally provocative it is,” said lead author Marc Lavoie. “Our test relied on photos — we found firstly that highly arousing pictures blur women’s capacity to determine whether they’ve seen it before and secondly, that women have a clearer memory of attractive experiences than men. Arousal has an enhancing effect on the memory of men however, as does ‘low valence’ or unpleasantness.”

The researchers showed participants different images on a computer screen that fell into four categories: “low-valence and low-arousal,” like scenes of babies crying; “low-valence and high-arousal,” such as, war photos; “high-valence and low-arousal,” including pictures of kittens; and the “high-valence and high-arousal” group, which included erotic photos. They were given images a second time, which included new ones and old ones, and they were to push buttons to indicate whether they had already seen it or if it was new. The speed and accuracy at which they pressed allowed the researchers to gauge which factors had the most influence for the participants. During all this, participants were also connected to EEG so their neuron activity was monitored.

“Interestingly, the scans revealed more activity in the right hemisphere of women’s brains for the recognition of pleasant pictures — the opposite of what we witnessed in men,” Lavoie said. “This challenges earlier studies using unpleasant pictures that revealed more activity in the left hemisphere for women and in the right hemisphere for men. Our findings demonstrate the complexity of emotional memory and underscore the importance of taking valence, arousal and sex differences into account when examining brain activity.”

Source: University of Montreal

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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