A new study by researchers at New York University shows that experiencing a highly emotional event enhances a feeling of remembering, even though accurate recall of such an event is no greater than that of ordinary incidents
A new study by researchers at New York University shows that experiencing a highly emotional event enhances a feeling of remembering, even though accurate recall of such an event is no greater than that of ordinary incidents. The researchers found that the human brain operates in a unique fashion when it retrieves memories of highly charged emotional events, leading to an enhanced subjective sense of vividness and level of detail for those memories that other memories lack. The results appear in the December issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.
The NYU team discovered that the amygdala, a small almond shaped structure in the brain that is linked to emotional processing, was key in enhancing the feeling of remembering for emotional material. A separate structure, the parahippocampus, was critical for heightening the feeling of remembering for neutral material.
The research team was from the laboratory of Elizabeth A. Phelps, an NYU professor of psychology and neural science. The lead author was Tali Sharot, a graduate student at NYU. Mauricio Delgado, a post-doctoral fellow, was a contributing author.
Employing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers detected brain activity while participants indicated whether the recognition of previously experienced emotional and neutral-or non-emotional-photos was accompanied by a recollection of details about the study episode or not. “Remember” judgments, indicating a high feeling of remembering, were boosted for emotional photos, but accuracy did not differ for emotional and neutral photos. The amygdala responded selectively to emotional “remembered” photos. In contrast, for neutral photos, activity in the parahippocampus was enhanced for “remember” judgments relative to “know” judgments.
These findings may help explain previous results from a behavioral study examining recollections of September 11 attacks. In that study (conducted in the laboratory of David Rubin at Duke University), it was reported that the feeling of remembering was heightened with emotion, even when objective accuracy was not enhanced.
“When evaluating neutral memories, an individual may rely upon recognition of perceptual details, which has been linked to activity in the parahippocampus, and is related to successful retrieval,” explained Phelps. “In contrast, when evaluating emotional memories, an individual may rely on the feeling of arousal and enhanced perceptual fluency, related to the amygdala, which may boost the subjective experience of retrieval without necessarily enhancing accuracy.”