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Can neutral episodic memories become emotional? Evidence from facial expressions and subjective feelings.

Maladaptive emotional memories are a transdiagnostic feature of mental health problems. Therefore, understanding whether and how emotional memories can change might help to prevent and treat mental disorders. We tested whether neutral memories of naturalistic events can retroactively acquire positive or negative affect, in a preregistered three-day Modification of Valence in Episodes (MOVIE) paradigm. On Day 1, participants (N = 41) encoded memories of neutral movie scenes, representing lifelike naturalistic experiences. On Day 2, they retrieved each episode before viewing a happy, sad, or neutral scene from the same movie (yielding a within-subjects design with a neutral-negative, neutral-positive, and neutral-neutral condition). On Day 3, participants again retrieved each memory from Day 1. We assessed the affective tone of episodes through facial expressions of positive and negative affect (using facial electromyography, fEMG) and through self-reported feelings. Positive updating of neutral episodes led to increased expressions of positive affect, whereas negative updating led to increased self-reported negative feelings. These results suggest that complex neutral episodic memories can retroactively acquire an affective tone, but the effects were modest and inconsistent across affect readouts. Future research should investigate alternative approaches to updating emotional memories that produce more profound changes in the valence of memories.

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