University of Southern California

USC Neuroscience

Mara Mather


Research Topics

  1. Effects of emotional arousal on perception and memory
  2. Stress and decision processes
  3. Age-related changes in emotion and cognition

Research Overview

At the core of our sense of self and personal history are emotional memories. Although emotional or stressful experiences tend to be memorable, emotional arousal can also impair various aspects of memory. In recent years, research into arousal and memory has focused on the key role of the amygdala in enhancing perception and memory of emotionally arousing stimuli. But enhanced memory for arousing information is only part of the story—there is also abundant evidence that arousal enhances some aspects of memory while impairing other aspects. In our lab, we are testing the theory that arousal enhances high-priority neural representations but suppresses low-priority neural representations of stimuli. We also are examining how age-related changes in inhibitory processes affect the influence of arousal.

In a related line of work, we are researching how stress influences decisions. Our work reveals that stress changes how risk-seeking people are in their decisions and how much they are influenced by positive versus negative outcomes. Our findings also reveal both gender and age differences in how stress influences decision processes. We are also investigating how connectivity among different brain regions involved in emotion and cognition change with age, using both structural and functional neuroimaging.

Contact Information

Web Site:
Emotion & Cognition Lab

Selected Publications

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Mather, M. (2012). The emotion paradox in the aging brain. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1251, 33-49. -Link

Mather, M., & Sutherland, M. R. (2011). Arousal-biased competition in perception and memory. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 114-133. -Link

Nashiro, K., Sakaki, M., & Mather, M. (2012). Age differences in brain activity during emotion processing: Reflections of age-related decline or increased emotion regulation? Gerontology, 58, 156-163. -Link

Lee, T.H., Itti, L., & Mather, M. (2012). Evidence for arousal-biased competition in perceptual learning. Frontiers in Emotion Science, 3:241. -Link

Nashiro, K., Sakaki, M., Nga, L., & Mather, M. (2012). Differential brain activity during emotional vs. non-emotional reversal learning. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 24, 1794-1805. -Link

Mather, M, & Lighthall, N. R. (2012). Risk and reward are processed differently in decisions made under stress. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 36-41. -Link

Lighthall, N. R., Sakaki, M., Vasunilashorn, S., Nga, L., Somayajula, S. Chen, E. Y., Samii, N., & Mather, M. (2012). Gender differences in reward-related decision processing under stress. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7, 476-484. -Link

Mather, M., & Schoeke, A. (2011). Positive outcomes enhance incidental learning for both younger and older adults. Front. Neurosci., 5:129. -Link

Sakaki, M., Niki, K., & Mather, M. (2011). Updating existing emotional memories involves the frontopolar/orbitofrontal cortex in ways that acquiring new emotional memories does not. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23, 3498-3514. -Link

Mather, M., Lighthall, N. R., Nga, L., & Gorlick, M. A. (2010). Sex differences in how stress affects brain activity during face viewing. NeuroReport, 21, 933-937. -Link