Neuroscience

Emotional Hangovers Are Real, And They're Not What You Think

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Memory is a fickle thing. Just ask Jason Bourne. Or Dory from "Finding Nemo." Or Guy Pearce in "Memento." (Boy, there sure are a lot of movies about characters with amnesia.) The point is: many factors can affect the way we remember. Previous research tells us that emotional experiences are better remembered than non-emotional ones. A 2017 study published in Nature Neuroscience goes even further: the way emotions sharpen our memories can extend beyond the emotional experience itself via what the authors call "emotional hangovers." People are better able to remember details of non-emotional experiences if they occur after an emotional experience.

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Walking Down Memory Lane

In the study from New York University, researchers had one group of volunteers look at a series of emotional images and a second group look at non-emotional, neutral images while their brains were scanned via fMRI and their skin conductance was measured. Around 10 to 30 minutes after the first viewing, the groups were switched: participants in the first group viewed non-emotional images and those from the second group looked at the emotional ones. Six hours later, both groups took a memory test to how well they could recall the images.

Results showed that the group who viewed the emotional images first could better remember the images they saw second (the neutral ones), compared to the people who saw the non-emotional images first. This suggested that strong emotions may have affected the way participants remembered later events. The fMRI scans seemed to support this: the regions of the brain that were active in response to the emotional images were still active up to 30 minutes later when the second set of neutral images were shown.

The Emotional Elephant Never Forgets

Essentially, the brain seems to be "charged" by emotional experiences, setting the stage for future memories to form more vividly afterwards. "Emotion is a state of mind," senior study author Lila Davachi explains. "These findings make clear that our cognition is highly influenced by preceding experiences and, specifically, that emotional brain states can persist for long periods of time."

If you've ever had an intensely emotional experience, you probably know the feeling of an emotional hangover. It's the way you don't just remember the car wreck; you also vividly remember looking for a pen to exchange insurance information and riding home in the tow truck. You don't just remember winning the volleyball championship; you remember the taste of the sports drink you had right after. The question is, could you use emotional experiences to your advantage—say, watch a dramatic movie before studying for a test? There's only one way to find out.

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Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Content About Memory

Remembering and Forgetting

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. Implicit memory (like how to talk or ride a bike) is retention independent of conscious recollection. 01:21

  2. Some memories are state-dependent or mood-congruent, meaning if you've had a bad day you're more likely to recall bad memories. 03:33

  3. The serial positioning effect is the tendency to recall best the last and first items in a list. 04:04

  4. Memory is both a reconstruction and a reproduction of past events. 08:36

The Nature Of Memory

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