Women who use hormonal birth control are better at remembering the gist of emotional events—but not the details, researchers say. Conversely, women experiencing ‘natural hormonal cycles’ are better at detail recollection. Graduate researcher Shawn Nielsen, who led the study, stresses that the Pill and other hormonal contraceptives don’t damage women’s memories, just alter them. “It’s a change in the type of information they remember, not a deficit,” she said.
In the study, conducted at the University of California, Irvine, 72 women were shown slides of a mother, her son and a car accident. The women were either told a story about the car hitting a curb (the ‘neutral’ story), or about the boy being hit and killed by a car (the ‘emotional’ story). A week later, the women were tested on what they recalled.
Birth control status had no impact on how well the women remembered the stories overall, and both women on birth control and those who weren’t were able to recall more about the emotional story than the neutral one. But the two groups “exhibited substantially different memory for gist and detail information from the emotional story.” Gist was defined as ‘any story element that could not be changed or altered without changing the fundamental story line’; details referred to things such as ‘the brown hospital building’ or a fire hydrant next to the wrecked car.
The women not taking hormonal contraception recalled significantly more details from the emotional story compared to the neutral one, though their gist recollection was the same for both stories. Women using hormonal contraceptives, conversely, saw no enhancement of memory for details when it came to the emotional story, but were more able to remember the gist of that story than the neutral one.
What’s interesting, I think, is not so much who recalls what, but just that these differences exist in the first place. As Nielsen notes, “There are only a handful of studies examining the cognitive effects of the pill, and more than 100 million women use it worldwide.”
It’s also worth noting that the recall power of the women on hormonal birth control begins to more closely resemble that of men. According to Nielsen, men typically rely more on right-hemisphere brain activity to encode memory, leading them to retain the gist of things more than the details, also. Taking hormonal birth control lowers a woman’s levels of hormones like estrogen and progesterone, which could be what accounts for the difference, she says.