Binding neutral information to emotional contexts: Brain dynamics of long-term recognition memory

Carlos Ventura-Bort, Andreas Löw, Julia Wendt, Javier Moltó, Rosario Poy, Florin Dolcos, Alfons O. Hamm, Mathias Weymar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


There is abundant evidence in memory research that emotional stimuli are better remembered than neutral stimuli. However, effects of an emotionally charged context on memory for associated neutral elements is also important, particularly in trauma and stress-related disorders, where strong memories are often activated by neutral cues due to their emotional associations. In the present study, we used event-related potentials (ERPs) to investigate long-term recognition memory (1-week delay) for neutral objects that had been paired with emotionally arousing or neutral scenes during encoding. Context effects were clearly evident in the ERPs: An early frontal ERP old/new difference (300–500 ms) was enhanced for objects encoded in unpleasant compared to pleasant and neutral contexts; and a late central-parietal old/new difference (400–700 ms) was observed for objects paired with both pleasant and unpleasant contexts but not for items paired with neutral backgrounds. Interestingly, objects encoded in emotional contexts (and novel objects) also prompted an enhanced frontal early (180–220 ms) positivity compared to objects paired with neutral scenes indicating early perceptual significance. The present data suggest that emotional—particularly unpleasant—backgrounds strengthen memory for items encountered within these contexts and engage automatic and explicit recognition processes. These results could help in understanding binding mechanisms involved in the activation of trauma-related memories by neutral cues.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)234-247
Number of pages14
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2016


  • Associative memory
  • Context
  • ERPs
  • Emotion
  • Event-related potentials
  • Old/New effect
  • Recognition
  • Relational memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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