The Effects of Acute Stress on Episodic Memory: A Meta-Analysis and Integrative Review

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A growing body of research has indicated that acute stress can critically impact memory. However, there are a number of inconsistencies in the literature, and important questions remain regarding the conditions under which stress effects emerge as well as basic questions about how stress impacts different phases of memory. In this meta-analysis, we examined 113 independent studies in humans with 6,216 participants that explored effects of stress on encoding, postencoding, retrieval, or postreactivation phases of episodic memory. The results indicated that when stress occurred prior to or during encoding it impaired memory, unless both the delay between the stressor and encoding was very short and the study materials were directly related to the stressor, in which case stress improved encoding. In contrast, postencoding stress improved memory unless the stressor occurred in a different physical context than the study materials. When stress occurred just prior to or during retrieval, memory was impaired, and these effects were larger for emotionally valenced materials than neutral materials. Although stress consistently increased cortisol, the magnitude of the cortisol response was not related to the effects of stress on memory. Nonetheless, the effects of stress on memory were generally reduced in magnitude for women taking hormonal contraceptives. These analyses indicate that stress disrupts some episodic memory processes while enhancing others, and that the effects of stress are modulated by a number of critical factors. These results provide important constraints on current theories of stress and memory, and point to new questions for future research.

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