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Acute stress - but not aversive scene content - impairs spatial configuration learning

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Contextual learning pervades our perception and cognition and plays a critical role in adjusting to aversive and stressful events. Our ability to memorise spatial context has been studied extensively with the contextual cueing paradigm, in which participants search for targets among simple distractor cues and show search advantages for distractor configurations that repeat across trials. Mixed evidence suggests that confrontation with adversity can enhance as well as impair the contextual cueing effect. We aimed to investigate this relationship more systematically by devising a contextual cueing task that tests spatial configuration learning within complex visual scenes that were emotionally neutral or negative (Study 1) and was preceded by the Maastricht Acute Stress Test (MAST) or a no-stress control condition (Study 2). We demonstrate a robust contextual cueing effect that was comparable across negative and neutral scenes (Study 1). In Study 2, acute stress disrupted spatial configuration learning irrespective of scene valence and endogenous cortisol reactivity to stress. Together with the emerging evidence in the literature, our findings suggest that spatial configuration learning may be subject to complex regulation as a function of spatial or temporal proximity to a stressor, with potential implications for the development of stress-related psychopathology.

    Research areas

  • BRAIN, IMPLICIT, INDUCED CORTISOL ELEVATIONS, INTERFERENCE, LABORATORY STRESS, MEMORY RETRIEVAL, Maastricht Acute Stress Test, PSYCHOSOCIAL STRESS, REAL-WORLD SCENES, Spatial Contextual Cueing Task, TEST MAST, WORKING-MEMORY, cortisol, dual representation theory, posttraumatic stress disorder
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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalCognition & Emotion
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 16 Apr 2019