Semester of Graduation

Spring 2021


Master of Arts (MA)



Document Type



Although acute anxiety has been shown to improve encoding of threat-relevant information, its effects on threat-neutral information are less understood. Recent research suggests that anxiety can impair subsequent recall for neutral words, particularly following practice with the recall task. Here we use event-related potentials (ERPs) to test the notion that anxiety specifically disrupts the implementation of encoding strategies—such as elaborative encoding—that tend to develop with practice. ERPs were recorded as participants studied two sets of neutral words, one of which was presented in a stressful context using the threat-of-shock paradigm (threat block), and the other in a non-threatening context (safe block). A free recall test followed each block. As predicted, analyses of ERPs during study revealed that, relative to safe blocks, words studied during threat blocks evoked: 1) larger N400 amplitudes, consistent with impeded access to meaning, and 2) smaller amplitudes of a slow frontal positivity linked to elaborative encoding. The latter of these effects was selective to participants who received the threat block after the safe block, consistent with a dependence on task practice. In contrast to our previous work, we did not find differences in recall between conditions. However, exploratory analyses revealed that observed ERP differences were largest in those participants who recalled fewer words during threat than safe blocks. Overall, these data are consistent with models of acute anxiety that posit impairments to goal-directed internal attention, and further demonstrate their applicability to episodic memory encoding.

Committee Chair

Lucas, Heather D.