The effects of trauma exposure and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on the emotion-induced memory trade-off

Katherine R. Mickley Steinmetz, Laurie A. Scott, David Smith, Elizabeth A. Kensinger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Many past examinations of memory changes in individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have focused on changes in memory for trauma. However, it is unclear if these mnemonic differences extend beyond the memory of the trauma to memory for other positive and negative information and if they are specific to individuals with PTSD or extend to other individuals who have experienced trauma. The present study examined the influences of trauma exposure and PTSD on an effect that may parallel tunnel memory in PTSD: the emotion-induced memory trade-off, whereby emotional aspects of an experience are remembered at the expense of the nonemotional context. Three groups of participants (25 with current PTSD, 27 who had experienced trauma but did not have current PTSD, and 25 controls who had neither experienced significant trauma nor met criteria for current PTSD) were shown complex visual scenes that included an item (positive, negative, or neutral) placed on a neutral background. Forty-five minutes later, participants underwent a recognition memory test for the items and backgrounds separately. An emotion-induced memory trade-off was said to occur when there was a significant difference in item and background memory for emotional scenes, but not for neutral scenes. Results indicated that people with PTSD, like the other groups, were more likely to remember positive and negative items than neutral items. Moreover, people with PTSD exhibited a memory trade-off comparable in magnitude to that exhibited by the non-trauma control group. In contrast, trauma-exposed people without a current diagnosis of PTSD did not show a trade-off, because they remembered items within scenes better than their accompanying contexts not only for emotional but also for neutral scenes. These results suggest that (1) the effect of emotion on memory for visual scenes is similar in people with PTSD and control participants, and (2) people who have experienced trauma, but do not have PTSD, may have a different way of attending to and remembering visual scenes, exhibiting less of a memory trade-off than either control participants or people with PTSD.

Original languageEnglish
JournalFrontiers in Integrative Neuroscience
Issue numberJUNE 2012
StatePublished - Jun 12 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Emotion
  • Memory
  • PTSD
  • Trauma


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