June 28, 2011 at 8:34 AM ET
If you want to remember new information, looking at photographs that stir up negative emotions may do the trick, suggests new research from Psychological Science.
Yeah, we know that sounds counterintuitive -- but it appears to work.
When study participants viewed color images of a dead cat, a pointed gun, or a person getting a dental exam -- pictures that evoke negative feelings -- it actually improved their recall of recently learned information.
In this case, 40 college students were asked to bone up on 100 vocabulary words in Swahili along with their English translations. (Example: "Mashua" means "boat" in Swahili, if you're going to east Africa.)
Volunteers were then tested on the vocabulary pairs, 10 words at a time. After they gave a correct answer, participants were shown a negatively arousing photo, a neutral image, such as a fork or shoelaces, or a blank screen. If they gave the wrong response, they saw a blank screen or neutral image.
Later they had a final exam on all 100 words.
Recall was much better for words after viewing the emotional image than it was following the neutral ones or a blank screen.
"The negative picture might have enhanced later recall because emotion, in particular negative emotion, can enhance memory," says Bridgid Finn, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate in psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. Researchers suspect this occurs because the emotional centers of the brain are closely linked to the ones involved in memory.
What about positively arousing images -- wouldn't they put you in a better frame of mind to learn Swahili? Finn says they tried using photos that were exciting, such as a ski jumper or sky diver, or even some that were sexually arousing in follow-up studies.
"We haven't found that retention is better using the positive pictures compared to the neutral pictures," explains Finn, the study's lead author.
But she is quick to admit that showing a classroom of students a picture of an awful dental exam or a cat that has been run over, as they did to study participants, probably isn't the best way for kids to learn.
And that wasn't the point of this research, either. The scientists had wanted to find out if after you retrieve something from memory, you continue to process the information. And they discovered that the time period right after you retrieve new information from your memory is key for strengthening its retention.
Instead of looking at dead cat photos, Finn offers this advice, "If you want to maximize retention, test yourself. Restudying is not going to get you as far."
She says taking practice tests is a great way to prepare. And if you get the wrong answer, finding out the correct response will benefit your learning.