An unpleasant emotional state reduces working memory capacity

Emotional states can guide the actions and decisions we make in our everyday life through their influence on cognitive processes such as working memory (WM). We investigated the long-lasting interference that an unpleasant emotional state had on goal-relevant WM representations from an electrophysiological perspective. Participants performed a change detection task that was preceded by the presentation of unpleasant or neutral task-irrelevant pictures in a blocked fashion. We focused on the contralateral delay activity (CDA), an event-related potential that is sensitive to the number of task-relevant items stored in WM. We found that the asymptotic limit for the CDA amplitude was lower during the unpleasant emotional state than during the neutral one; that is, an emotional state was capable of reducing how many task-relevant items the participants could hold in WM. Furthermore, both the individuals who experienced more intrusive thoughts and those who were dispositionally anxious were more susceptible to the influence of the emotional state. We provide evidence that an unpleasant emotional state diminished visual WM for task-relevant items, particularly in susceptible individuals. These results open new avenues to uncover the emotional-cognitive processing that underlies maladaptive WM representations and the role of such processing in the development of mental illness.

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About Giorgio Bertini

Research Professor. Founder Director at Learning Change Project - Research on society, culture, art, neuroscience, cognition, critical thinking, intelligence, creativity, autopoiesis, self-organization, rhizomes, complexity, systems, networks, leadership, sustainability, thinkers, futures ++
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