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Neuropsychologia. 2000;38(11):1452-65.

Recognition memory for emotionally negative and neutral words: an ERP study.

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  • 1Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Department of Psychology, University College London, 17 Queen Square, WC1N 3AR, London, UK.


Scalp recorded event-related potentials were used to investigate the neural activity elicited by emotionally negative and emotionally neutral words during the performance of a recognition memory task. Behaviourally, the principal difference between the two word classes was that the false alarm rate for negative items was approximately double that for the neutral words. Correct recognition of neutral words was associated with three topographically distinct ERP memory 'old/new' effects: an early, bilateral, frontal effect which is hypothesised to reflect familiarity-driven recognition memory; a subsequent left parietally distributed effect thought to reflect recollection of the prior study episode; and a late onsetting, right-frontally distributed effect held to be a reflection of post-retrieval monitoring. The old/new effects elicited by negative words were qualitatively indistinguishable from those elicited by neutral items and, in the case of the early frontal effect, of equivalent magnitude also. However, the left parietal effect for negative words was smaller in magnitude and shorter in duration than that elicited by neutral words, whereas the right frontal effect was not evident in the ERPs to negative items. These differences between neutral and negative words in the magnitude of the left parietal and right frontal effects were largely attributable to the increased positivity of the ERPs elicited by new negative items relative to the new neutral items. Together, the behavioural and ERP findings add weight to the view that emotionally valenced words influence recognition memory primarily by virtue of their high levels of 'semantic cohesion', which leads to a tendency for 'false recollection' of unstudied items.

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