The emotional startle effect is disrupted by a concurrent working memory task


  • This study was supported by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and by the University of Leeds. The authors thank Martin Conway for his comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript, and Denis McKeown for his help with auditory stimulation techniques.

Address correspondence to: Alexandre Schaefer, Wolfson Research Institute, University of Durham, Queens Campus, Stockton-on-Tees, TS17 6BH, UK. E-mail:


Working memory (WM) processes are often thought to play an important role in the cognitive regulation of negative emotions. However, little is known about how they influence emotional processing. We report two experiments that tested whether a concurrent working memory task could modulate the emotional startle eyeblink effect, a well-known index of emotional processing. In both experiments, emotionally negative and neutral pictures were viewed in two conditions: a “cognitive load” (CL) condition, in which participants had to actively maintain information in working memory (WM) while viewing the pictures, and a control “no load” (NL) condition. Picture-viewing instructions were identical across CL and NL. In both experiments, results showed a significant reduction of the emotional modulation of the startle eyeblink reflex in the CL condition compared to the NL condition. These findings suggest that a concurrent WM task disrupts emotional processing even when participants are directing visual focus on emotionally relevant information.