SAM: Memory contextualisation of PTSD

In this study, the relationship between stress and the context-dependent memory for neutral, emotional and anxious information is studied.

Memory contextualisation of PTSD

When people experience something, information about the environment in which this occurs plays an important role in remembering this event. We call these details about the environment context. Information about the context is unconsciously linked in memory to the event, making memories context-dependent. It is very important that this link is created properly, because the context associated with the event also determines when someone remembers the event. When the linking of this information is incorrect, memories can become too general, so that people think of them more often or in the wrong place. For example, this can cause problems when experiencing a shocking event. People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are then also reminded of this event in a safe environment. 

Project overview


We started the SAM project to investigate how (annoying) memories become too general and what the role of stress is in this process. In this study we investigate the influence of stress on the context-dependent memory for neutral, emotional and anxious information. We know from previous research that stress has immediate and delayed effects on memory. In this study, we studied how this applies to context-dependent form of memory.

Target group:

Healthy men between 18 - 50 years old

Time course:

2015 – 2019


Stress influences the context dependence of memories on neutral information and time plays an important role in this process. The immediate effects of stress ensure that this information is stored in memory in a less context-dependent manner. As a result, the memories contain fewer environmental details and are therefore more general. The delayed effects of stress had the exact opposite effect. On the contrary, they ensure that information is stored with more contextual details (and therefore more specific). When experiencing a stressful event outside the laboratory, the immediate and delayed effects of stress are sequential. Our results show that it is important that these effects are balanced, so that together they can ensure that memories are not stored too generally and not too specifically. In the future, this knowledge may contribute to more insight into the development of disorders such as PTSD.


Sep MSC, van Ast VA, Gorter R, et al. Time-dependent effects of psychosocial stress on the contextualization of neutral memories. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2019; 108: 140–149.