Enhanced spontaneous retrieval of cues from emotional events: An ERP study

Carlos Ventura-Bort, Janine Wirkner, Florin Dolcos, Julia Wendt, Alfons O. Hamm, Mathias Weymar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recent evidence points to enhanced episodic memory retrieval not only for emotional items but also for neutral information encoded in emotional contexts. However, prior research only tested instructed explicit recognition, and hence here we investigated whether memory retrieval is also heightened for cues from emotional contexts when retrieval is not explicitly probed. During the first session of a two-session experiment, neutral objects were presented on different background scenes varying in emotional and neutral contents. One week later, objects were presented again (with no background) intermixed with novel objects. In both sessions, participants were instructed to attentively watch the stimuli (free viewing procedure), and during the second session, ERPs were also collected to measure the ERP Old/New effect, an electrophysiological correlate of episodic memory retrieval. Analyses were performed using cluster-based permutation tests in order to identify reliable spatio-temporal ERP differences. Based on this approach, old relative to new objects, were associated with larger ERP positivity in an early (364–744 ms) and late time window (760–1148 ms) over distinct central electrode clusters. Interestingly, significant late ERP Old/New differences were only observed for objects previously encoded with emotional, but not neutral scenes (504 to 1144 ms). Because these ERP differences were observed in a non-instructed retrieval context, our results indicate that long-term, spontaneous retrieval for neutral objects, is particularly heightened if encoded within emotionally salient contextual information. These findings may assist in understanding mechanisms underlying spontaneous retrieval of emotional associates and the utility of ERPs to study maladaptive involuntary memories in trauma- and stress-related disorders.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number107742
JournalBiological Psychology
StatePublished - Nov 2019


  • ERP
  • Emotion
  • Event-related potentials
  • Old/New effect
  • Retrieval
  • Spontaneous memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology


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