Boost Your Memory By Associating It With Feelings; How Emotions Help Recall Information

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Memories are remembered more easily when they're associated with some kind of feeling, either positive or negative. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

We may often find ourselves remembering certain emotional or traumatic events with more color and accuracy than ordinary and mundane day-to-day events. For example, you’re more likely to remember the environment of a first date than the type of cat food you poured into Fluffy’s dish on Wednesday night, the third type of beer you drank at happy hour last week, or what pair of socks you wore yesterday.

It turns out that emotions have a significant impact on how well we process and remember information. According to a new study, our brains are more likely to be able to retrieve memories if we link them with feelings. The authors of the study, Joseph Dunsmoor and Vishnu Murty of the Psychology Department at New York University, write in The Conversation that such trivial events in life can become not-so-trivial in our minds if we experienced either a positive or negative emotion along with them.

“Emotion increases our ability to remember by affecting activity in brain regions involved in emotional processing, particularly the amygdala and striatum, and also the regions involved in encoding new experiences, like the hippocampus,” the authors write. “Emotion also increases the strength of our memory over time, a process called consolidation. … Of course, many details are not intrinsically emotionally arousing. But they can gain emotional significance through our experiences.”

The researchers go on to describe some of their previous research, which involved studying how people remembered neutral pictures if they received an electric shock while looking at them (the electric shocks led them to retain the memory better). In addition, they had also found that participants remembered images better if they were warned they’d be punished with an electric shock if they forgot them.

But it’s the most recent study that settles on something interesting: that memory changes over time, and can improve over time as well, especially if an emotional event happens after the original memories formed. In the study, participants looked at a series of photos that were either of animals or tools. In a later experiment, they looked at photos of animals or tools while experiencing an electric shock. It turns out that when they experienced an electric shock while looking at a picture of either animals or tools, they were more able to remember the previous photos from the first experiment.

“Like remembering details from lunch last Wednesday after you discovered your friend got sick, the negative experience selectively increased memory for related information that was completely trivial when it was original experienced.”

So there you have it: The brain stores even the most mundane details, in areas we may not always access. But if emotion causes us to claw back in there and pull it out, it’ll be there waiting for us.

Source: Dunsmoor J, Murty V, Davachi L, Phelps E. Emotional learning selectively and retroactively strengthens memories for related events. Nature. 2015.

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