June 2016, Vol. 28, No. 6, Pages 895-907
Beta-adrenergic Blockade at Memory Encoding, but Not Retrieval, Decreases the Subjective Sense of Recollection
Humans remember emotional events not only better but also exhibit a qualitatively distinct recollective experience—that is, emotion intensifies the subjective vividness of the memory, the sense of reliving the event, and confidence in the accuracy of the memory [Phelps, E. A., & Sharot, T. How (and why) emotion enhances the subjective sense of recollection. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 147–152, 2008]. Although it has been demonstrated that activation of the beta-adrenergic system, linked to increases in stress hormone levels and physiological arousal, mediates enhanced emotional memory accuracy, the mechanism underlying the increased subjective sense of recollection is unknown. Behavioral evidence suggests that increased arousal associated with emotional events, either at encoding or retrieval, underlies their increased subjective sense of recollection. Using a double-blind, placebo-controlled, within-subject design, we showed that reducing arousal at encoding through oral intake of 80-mg of the beta-adrenergic receptor antagonist propranolol decreases the subjective sense of recollection for both negative and neutral stimuli 24 hr later. In contrast, administration of propranolol before memory retrieval did not alter the subjective sense of recollection. These results suggest that the neurohormonal changes underlying increased arousal at the time of memory formation, rather than the time of memory retrieval, modulate the subjective sense of recollection.