The Effects of Imagination and Stress on the Recognition of Words and Pictures

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Updated: May 16, 2022
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How can educational institutions and teaching professionals facilitate learning environments that are more suitable for students? One main factor to consider is the effect of stress and anxiety on students’ memory and thus their ability to recognize and recall the content that they often spend many hours cramming for. It is very common for students to take an exam and perform poorly due to their inability to correctly recall the information they intensely studied. By analyzing the impact of induced emotional arousal, specifically negative ones, various studies have been able to take a closer look at the underlying processes behind this weakened memory phenomena.

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To examine the processes capable of influencing memory, a study done by Goff & Roediger (1998) aimed to discover how imagination can generate false memory. They measured this through imagination inflation which was defined as the extent to which imagination superimposed on true memory (i.e. the number of times subjects said they performed an action when in fact they had only imagined it). They found that subjects were more likely to falsely recall performing an action when they were subjected to a higher number of imaginings. In addition, they found that the closer the imagining session was to the performing session (where encoding of real events took place), the greater the interference of memory processing and the lower the overall recognition. Thus, it was made obvious the impact that imagination or induced cognitive processes had on the authenticity of our memories.

In order to comprehend the role of emotion on debilitated recognition, it was important to recognize the findings addressing the neurological mechanisms of learning and memory. Although many studies have discovered that emotional cues can enhance memory retention due to the intertwined interaction between the brain’s hippocampus (memory processing center) and amygdala (emotional processing center), the effects of attention and motivation, which can vary across emotions, are important components to consider (Tyng, Amin, Saad, & Malik, 2017). Therefore, extensive research had been done to suggest that negative emotions such as stress and anxiety can actually hurt memory performance rather than help it. A cognitive system labeled “”SEEKING was discovered as one of the main emotional systems that encourages curiosity and is closely tied to long-term memory formation; however, this SEEKING system is also less active during intense negative states such as stress and depression.

Additionally, Tyng, Amin, Saad, & Malik (2017) emphasized the importance of understanding the interaction between cognitive process (motivational and attentive), emotion, and memory in order to facilitate educational content that can optimize students’ performance on learning and memory. Their presented knowledge intended to encourage investigation and discussion about the effect of modality (audiovisual vs transcript) and emotion on education, in regard to the current rise of multimedia and online platforms.

Furthermore, research had been done to discuss how induced stress during encoding (processing information) can impact long-term recognition and recall. Shermohammed, Davidow, Somerville, & Murty (2018) aimed to distinguish between the effect of stress on memory “”hits (being able to recognize information that was formerly observed) and on memory “”false alarms (falsely identifying material as being previously observed when in fact it was not). They were primarily interested in understanding the extent to which comparable material presented at testing can be confused which actual memories. Through manipulating stress induction and image presentation (negative vs neutral), they examined the number of memory “”hits and “”false alarms. They concluded that stress reduced memory when subjects were exposed to negative images; on the other hand, stress improved memory for neutral images. They further identified that the effects of stress were mainly determined by false alarms and not hits; thus, subjects induced by stress were more likely to exhibit memory false alarms when exposed to negative images rather than neutral images.

Regarding the modality of the material that subjects are presented with during memorization, substantial amounts of studies have concluded a significant relationship between visual presentation and memory performance. Particularly, Smith & Hunt (1998) were able to show that visual presentation of words greatly lessens false memory. They manipulated the form of word presentation (visual vs auditory) and examined false memory through measuring the extent to which unpresented items (words never presented during the studying phase) shown at the testing phase, termed “”critical items, were labeled by subjects as words they actually saw or heard. Their results found that subjects were less prone to false memory when they saw the words rather than heard them, signifying the connection between visual processing and memory.

As seen in the findings of Goff & Roediger (1998), imagination caused subjects to be more likely to identify an action as “”remembered when it fact it was not. Although they were able to demonstrate the influence of imagination on memory, they tested imagination for neutral items and did not consider how negative or positive items may affect the influence of imagination. Furthermore, although Tyng, Amin, Saad, & Malik (2017) discussed the relevancy of motivational and attentive processes involved in memory, they did not perform a study on the effects of emotion on memory in an educational context. While Shermohammed, Davidow, Somerville, & Murty (2018) observed the effect of stress on long-term memory, they lacked inspection of how stress can affect short-term memory. Lastly, Smith & Hunt (1998) saw modality’s effect on memory by manipulating the presentation of words (visually and audially), but did not further contemplate the effect of images.

Therefore, we aimed to develop a present study that encompasses these findings to further observe the effects of emotion by inducing stress in undergraduate students through imagination to see how it affects their short-term memory when tested on their recognition of words vs pictures. We manipulated both stress and the presentation form of study items to measure false memory. Stress was operationalized by whether subjects were placed in an imagination condition or not (i.e. stress was induced by the imagination condition because subjects were told to imagine a time they were stressed out for an exam). Presentation form was operationalized by whether the study items would be presented in picture form or word form. False memory was operationalized as the number of incorrect recognition responses labeled as false alarms (i.e. subjects said they previously studied or viewed a picture/word when in fact they did not).

We predicted that regardless of the presentation form of study items, the imagination condition will have more false alarms than the no imagination condition due to the induction of stress interfering with their memory processing. We also predicted that regardless of the imagination of stress, the word condition will have more false alarms than the picture condition due to the correlated relationship between visual processing and memory. Moreover, we hypothesized that the effects of stress and presentation form depend on each other (i.e. the effect of stress depends on the level of presentation form and vice versa). Therefore, it was predicted that within the imagination condition, subjects would have a greater number of false alarms for words, which would also be the case for the no imagination condition. Similarly, within the picture condition, subjects would have a higher number of false alarms when told to imagine a stressful exam, which would be the same for the word condition as well. Due to this interaction, the final prediction is that the imagination/word condition will have the greatest number of incorrect recall responses and that the no imagination/picture condition will have the fewest incorrect recall responses. We tested these predictions by using a within-subject factorial design.

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The Effects of Imagination and Stress on the Recognition of Words and Pictures. (2019, Mar 27). Retrieved from