The influence of emotional priming on the neural substrates of memory: A prospective fMRI study using portrait art stimuli.

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Events coupled with an emotional context seem to be better retained than non-emotional events. The aim of our study was to investigate whether an emotional context could influence the neural substrates of memory associations with novel portrait art stimuli. In the current prospective fMRI study, we have investigated for one specific visual art form (modern artistic portraits with a high degree of abstraction) whether memory is influenced by priming with emotional facial pictures. In total forty healthy female volunteers in the same age range were recruited for the study. Twenty of these women participated in a prospective brain imaging memory paradigm and were asked to memorize a series of similar looking, but different portraits. After randomization, for twelve participants (Group 1), a third of the portraits was emotionally primed with approach-related pictures (smiling baby faces), a third with withdrawal-related pictures (baby faces with severe dermatological conditions), and another third with neutral images. Group 2 consisted of eight participants and they were not primed. Then, during an fMRI session 2h later, these portraits were viewed in random order intermixed with a set of new (previously unseen) ones, and the participants had to decide for each portrait whether or not they had already been seen. In a separate experiment, a different sample of twenty healthy females (Group 3) rated their mood after being exposed to the same art stimuli, without priming. The portraits did not evoke significant mood changes by themselves, supporting their initial neutral emotional character (Group 3). The correct decision on whether the portraits were Familiar of Unfamiliar led to similar neuronal activations in brain areas implicated in visual and attention processing for both groups (Groups 1 and 2). In contrast, whereas primed participants showed significant higher neuronal activities in the left midline superior frontal cortex (Brodmann area (BA) 6), unprimed volunteers displayed higher right medial frontal cortical (BA 10) activities. Furthermore, specifically in Group 1, correct retrieval of negatively primed portraits evoked increased neuronal activity in the left medial orbitofrontal cortex (BA 11) and in the right (posterior) insula, suggesting enhanced stress-related responses to the memory of withdrawal-related primed modern artistic portraits in this group. Our prospective memory data in healthy females indicate that, to reach a correct retrieval decision, different midline anterior neuronal networks are recruited for portraits that were emotionally primed than for the unprimed ones. Importantly, our results also suggest that the negative emotional context leads to the formation of associations that are reactivated during memory retrieval processes of the initially neutral art portraits. When correctly recognized, the portraits evoke neuronal activities consistent with the withdrawal-related character of the emotional visual stimuli with which they have been associated. Although our results show that abstract portrait art can be associated with emotional primes this doesn't mean that this effect is specific for art images.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)876-883
Number of pages7
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jul 2012


  • Healthy females
  • Prospective memory
  • Portrait art
  • Emotional priming
  • Approach and withdrawal-related emotions
  • fMRI


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