Neural Processes Supporting Young and Older Adults’
Elizabeth A. Kensinger1,2and Daniel L. Schacter2,3
& Young and older adults are more likely to remember emo-
tional information than neutral information. The present func-
tional magnetic resonance imaging study examined the neural
processes supporting young (ages 18–35) and older (ages
62–79) adults’ successful encoding of positive, negative, and
neutral objects (e.g., a sundae, a grenade, a canoe). The re-
sults revealed general preservation of the emotional memory
network across the age groups. Both groups recruited the
amygdala and the orbito-frontal cortex during the successful
encoding of positive and negative information. Both ages also
showed valence-specific recruitment: right fusiform activity
was greatest during the successful encoding of negative in-
formation, whereas left prefrontal and temporal activity was
greatest during the successful encoding of positive informa-
tion. These valence-specific processes are consistent with be-
havioral evidence that negative information is processed with
perceptual detail, whereas positive information is processed
at a conceptual or schematic level. The only age differences
in emotional memory emerged during the successful encod-
ing of positive items: Older adults showed more activity in
the medial prefrontal cortex and along the cingulate gyrus
than young adults. Because these regions often are associated
with self-referential processing, these results suggest that older
adults’ mnemonic boost for positive information may stem
from an increased tendency to process this information in
relation to themselves. &
Individuals typically are more likely to remember emo-
tional information than they are to remember nonemo-
tional information (LaBar & Cabeza, 2006; Reisberg &
Heuer, 2004; Buchanan & Adolphs, 2002). Although the
neural processes corresponding to this emotional mem-
ory enhancement have been thoroughly studied in
young adults, with activation in the amygdala and the
orbito-frontal cortex corresponding with later memory
for emotional material (LaBar & Cabeza, 2006; Hamann,
2001), little is known about how the emotional memory
network changes with age. The primary goal of the pres-
ent study was to examine the neural processes that cor-
respond with young and older adults’ successful encoding
of emotional information.
On the one hand, there is reason to believe that the
emotional memory network may be fairly stable with
aging. Some behavioral studies have suggested that
older adults display emotional memory enhancements
comparable to those of young adults (e.g., Denburg,
Buchanan, Tranel, & Adolphs, 2003; Kensinger, Brierley,
Medford, Growdon, & Corkin, 2002). Moreover, the
regions associated with emotional memory in young
adults (e.g., amygdala and orbito-frontal cortex) tend
to be relatively preserved with aging, both structurally
(Salat et al., 2004; Salat, Kaye, & Janowsky, 2001; Chow
& Cummings, 2000; Tisserand, Visser, van Boxtel, &
Jolles, 2000) and functionally (Gutchess, Kensinger, &
Schacter, 2007; Williams et al., 2006). On the other hand,
however, are studies that have suggested that the va-
lence of information (whether positive or negative) may
fundamentally influence the way in which older adults
process and remember emotional information. A num-
ber of studies have revealed a ‘‘positivity shift’’ with
aging; whereas young adults are more likely to remem-
ber negative information than positive or neutral infor-
mation, older adults may be at least as likely (or even
more likely) to remember positive information com-
pared with negative information (Mather & Carstensen,
It has been proposed that this ‘‘positivity shift’’ may
occur because older adults put more emphasis on emo-
tion regulation goals than do young adults, with older
adults having a greater motivation to derive emotional
meaning from life and to maintain positive affect (e.g.,
Mather & Carstensen, 2005; Carstensen, 1993). In the
service of these goals, older adults may focus their at-
tention on things that will elicit pleasant feelings (Mather,
2006; Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999) and may
process positive information in a more self-referential
fashion (Gutchess et al., 2007). Although this argument
1Boston College,2Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical
D 2008 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20:7, pp. 1–13
has some empirical support, behavioral data do not
always support the conclusion that older adults’ ‘‘positiv-
ity shift’’ results from changes in encoding processes. For
example, when performing a digit parity task in which
positive or negative distractor words were presented in
between the two numbers that were to be evaluated,
older adults did not show a disproportionate interference
effect from the positive words compared to the nega-
tive words. Nevertheless, the older adults did later re-
member the positive words better than the negative
words (Thomas & Hasher, 2006). These findings suggest
that older adults’ positivity bias may not arise from
increased attention toward positive items at the time of
encoding. However, when older adults’ attentional re-
sources are taxed during encoding (by use of a divided
attention manipulation), their positivity effect disappears
(Mather & Knight, 2005), suggesting that there may be
a link between the way in which older adults process
positive versus negative at encoding that leads to their
mnemonic benefit for positive information.
The present functional magnetic resonance imaging
study used a subsequent-memory paradigm, in which
encoding-related activity to items of different valences
was analyzed as a function of whether the items were
later remembered or forgotten (for more information on
the use of the subsequent-memory paradigm, see review
by Paller & Wagner, 2002). Thus, the present study could
examine whether there are age-related changes in the
neural processes supporting the successful encoding of
emotional information, and whether such changes could
explain older adults’ positivity shift. If age-related
changes in encoding processes correspond with the
positivity shift, then it should be possible to demon-
strate age-related changes in the neural processes that
predict subsequent memory for positive information.
We therefore compared the neural processes that young
and older adults recruited as they encoded positive,
negative, and neutral information. This design allowed
us to examine subsequent-memory effects that general-
ize to all emotional items (i.e., positive and negative ones)
and also to uncover subsequent-memory effects that are
valence-specific (i.e., that correspond with memory for
positive but not negative items, or vice-versa).
To accomplish these goals, we used a paradigm
previously shown to lead to an emotional memory en-
hancement only for negative information in young
adults but to lead to a broader emotional memory en-
hancement for negative and positive information in
older adults (Kensinger, Garoff-Eaton, & Schacter, 2007a,
2007b). In this paradigm, young and older adults are
shown objects, some with negative content (e.g., a snake),
some with positive content (e.g., a sundae), and others
with neutral content (e.g., a canoe). After a delay, par-
ticipants are shown another series of objects and are
asked to discriminate items that are the ‘‘same’’ (identical
to studied objects) from objects that are ‘‘similar’’ (share
the same verbal label as a studied object, but differ in
visual details) or from objects that are ‘‘new’’ (unrelated
to a studied object). The ‘‘positivity shift’’ is manifest in
the fact that young adults perform well when judging
whether negative objects are ‘‘new,’’ but perform equally
poorly when judging whether neutral or positive objects
are ‘‘new.’’ By contrast, older adults are equally good
at knowing whether negative or positive objects are
An important feature of this paradigm is that it can
distinguish memory for an object’s visual details (i.e., a
participants’ ability to know that something is ‘‘same’’
rather than ‘‘similar’’) from memory for an object’s gist
or general theme (i.e., a participants’ ability to know that
something is not ‘‘new’’). This distinction is an impor-
tant one to make because previous behavioral research
has demonstrated that negative items are more likely to
be remembered with visual detail than neutral or posi-
tive items (Kensinger, 2007). Importantly, this valence-
specific boost for visual details occurs for both young
and older adults. Older adults, just like young adults,
remember the visual details of negative objects more
frequently than they remember the visual details of pos-
itive or neutral objects, and they show no boost in mem-
ory for the visual details of positive items as compared to
neutral ones (e.g., Kensinger, Garoff-Eaton, & Schacter,
in press; Kensinger, O’Brien, Swanberg, Garoff-Eaton, &
Schacter, in press; Kensinger et al., 2007a, 2007b). This
preservation sets up an interesting contrast regarding
older adults’ emotional memories: Although older
adults show a benefit for remembering the general
theme of positive information, they show no benefit
for remembering the specific visual details of positive
items and, in fact, are better at remembering negative
items’ visual details.
These findings suggest that there is something dif-
ferent about the way in which positive and negative
information is processed, such that across the adult
lifespan, negative information is remembered with
more detail than positive information. Positive informa-
tion may be processed in a gist-like or heuristic fashion,
with attention drawn to the general features of the
presented information but not the exact details. By
contrast, negative information may be processed in a
more detail-oriented and analytic fashion, with attention
focused on the item details (e.g., Gasper & Clore, 2002;
Bless et al., 1996). Although behavioral evidence sup-
ports such a distinction (e.g., Kensinger & Schacter,
2006; Storbeck & Clore, 2005; Levine & Bluck, 2004;
Ochsner, 2000), it is not known how the neural circuitry
recruited during the processing of positive and negative
information leads to these different effects on mem-
ory. Nor is it understood why aging changes the propor-
tion of positive information remembered (i.e., results in
a ‘‘positivity shift’’) but not the visual details remem-
bered about positive items. The present study explored
these open questions regarding the emotional memory
2Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience Volume 20, Number 7
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to interpret. ‘‘Similar’’ responses to similar exemplars could
reflect memory for visual detail (a participant could remember
the details of the studied object and know that the tested
exemplar did not match); however, a ‘‘similar’’ response also
could reflect memory for only the general item type (a par-
ticipant could remember that a particular type of object had
been studied but have no memory for its visual details and
therefore call it ‘‘similar’’). A ‘‘new’’ response is also ambiguous:
It could signify that the studied item was forgotten, but it also
could be given if the participant remembered the studied item
but did not apply the same verbal label to the tested exemplar.
2. The regions disproportionately active during older adults’
encoding of positive items also tend to be the regions that are
active in the ‘‘default’’ state, when participants do not need to
be engaged in task-directed thought (e.g., Fox et al., 2005;
Gusnard, Akbudak, Shulman, & Raichle, 2001; Shulman et al.,
1997). It has been proposed that there may be a link between
these regions’ roles in self-referential processing and their
activity during these baseline (i.e., task-void) periods: When
people are not given a specific task to perform, they often
engage in self-referential thinking, including recollection of past
experiences and simulations of future experiences (Schacter,
Addis, & Buckner, 2007). Older adults often show difficulty
disengaging these regions during task performance, perhaps
suggesting an increased tendency for older adults to continue
self-referential processing even when it is not directly pertinent
to task performance (e.g., Persson, Lustig, Nelson, & Reuter-
Lorenz, 2007; Grady, Springer, Hongwanishkul, McIntosh, &
Winocur, 2006; Lustig et al., 2003). It will be interesting for
future research to examine whether this difficulty in disengage-
ment may be associated with the increased importance that
older adults place on emotion regulation goals (e.g., are the
older adults who show the most difficulty disengaging self-
referential processes also those same individuals who put the
greatest emphasis on emotional well-being).
Responses to items tested as similar exemplars are difficult
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