Memory, stress, and the hippocampal hypothesis: Firefighters' recollections of the fireground

Janet Metcalfe, J.C. Brezier, J. McNamara, G. Maletta, Matti Vuorre

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

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Nadel, Jacobs, and colleagues have postulated that human memory under conditions of extremely high stress is “special.” In particular, episodic memories are thought to be susceptible to impairment, and possibly fragmentation, attributable to hormonally based dysfunction occurring selectively in the hippocampal system. While memory for highly salient and self-relevant events should be better than the memory for less central events, an overall nonmonotonic decrease in spatio/temporal episodic memory as stress approaches traumatic levels is posited. Testing human memory at extremely high levels of stress, however, is difficult and reports are rare. Firefighting is the most stressful civilian occupation in our society. In the present study, we asked New York City firefighters to recall everything that they could upon returning from fires they had just fought. Communications during all fires were recorded, allowing verification of actual events. Our results confirmed that recall was, indeed, impaired with increasing stress. A nonmonotonic relation was observed consistent with the posited inverted u-shaped memory-stress function. Central details about emergency situations were better recalled than were more schematic events, but both kinds of events showed the memory decrement with high stress. There was no evidence of fragmentation. Self-relevant events were recalled nearly five times better than events that were not self-relevant. These results provide confirmation that memories encoded under conditions of extremely high stress are, indeed, special and are impaired in a manner that is consistent with the Nadel/Jacobs hippocampal hypothesis.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1141-1149
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 29 Jun 2019
Externally publishedYes


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