Researchers at UC Irvine have found that women who take birth control pills appear to remember emotional events in a manner more similar to men.

The hormonal changes resulting from the Pill seem to make women better at remembering the overall gist, like men do, while women not taking the pill are better at remembering peripheral details. 

Previous memory studies have found that men are more likely to recall the significant elements of an emotional event rather than the kind of information that women are better at remembering.

Graduate student researcher Shawn Nielsen said studying the differences among women, based on their hormone levels, could help explain why more women suffer from post-traumatic stress than men.

“It’s a really useful setup,” Nielsen said. “A lot of times people will just say men and women are different. Now we’ve got two different groups of women with different sex hormones.”

For the study, groups of women taking oral contraceptives were compared with women who were not. Both groups were shown photos from a fictional car accident (see above).  The women were told a story about a child’s serious injuries, where his legs were severed above the ankles.  A week later, the participants were surprised with a test about what they recalled.

Women on birth control remembered more clearly the significant details, such as efforts to treat the child, while the other women better remembered non-essential details such as a fire hydrant next to the car.

“There’s over 100 million women worldwide on hormonal contraception, and there’s a very limited number of studies looking at the cognitive effect of the Pill,” Nielsen said. “It’s the first one to look at how the Pill affects emotional memory.”

The research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and appears in the September issue of the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

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