All memories are not created equal. The emotion you feel when an event occurs will determine whether or not you’ll remember it the next day, a week later, or a year from now.
Emotional events attract attention more quickly than non-emotional. People tend to remember them more. The memories of emotionally intense events are formed in detail. This allows them to be remembered vividly, even years later.
What do you remember?
How well do you remember, for example, where you were at the time you heard about the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11? The majority of people can recall it with great detail, including where they were and who they were with. They may even remember the weather or what they had in the kitchen.
These emotional memories are called “flashbulb memory.” This is a special memory that you can recall in such detail; it’s like your brain snapped a photo at the time.
Not only are public, unexpected events susceptible to imprinting the brain with emotional memories. Even routine events, such as your wedding, the birth of your baby, or an argument you had, can be remembered with greater vividness and detail.
This amazing phenomenon shows how our brain changes and adapts to the situation, affecting the way we remember things.
Where do emotional memories form?
It is not a new idea that emotions are stored exclusively in the brain. William James, a philosopher and psychologist who lived in 1890, suggested that emotional experiences left “a scar on the cerebral tissue”.
However, the brain regions that underlie this emotional boost have not yet been fully understood.
In 1994, Ralph Adolphs described S.M., a woman who suffered from Urbach-Wiethe, a rare genetic disorder. This disease causes the amygdala, a brain structure, to shrink and wither.
Patient S.M. Patient S.M. Her emotional memory is severely impaired, and she shows no emotional boost, as seen in healthy adults.
Memory and dementia
Our research groups studied this fascinating phenomenon among patients with frontotemporal degeneration in order to better understand emotional memories. This rare form of dementia affects people between the ages of 50 and 60. Unfortunately, there is no cure or treatment.
Frontotemporal dementia patients have trouble understanding other people’s emotions and are unable to interact with them in social situations. This suggests that parts of the brain responsible for feelings are affected.
We showed healthy adults and patients with frontotemporal degeneration pictures that normally evoke a strong emotional response. (Snakes and car accidents, for example). Then, we tested their memory of the emotional images and non-emotional ones (houses, cups, etc.).
Patients with frontotemporal degeneration showed no emotional boost, whereas adults in good health remembered more pictures associated with strong emotions. This indicates that a disruption of dynamic memory characterizes frontotemporal decline.
We found that the shrinkage of the orbitofrontal cortex was the cause.
We have discovered new information on where emotional memories form. The orbitofrontal cortex, as well as the amygdala, is crucial to the formation of strong emotional memories.
Our results give us valuable insight into the lives of people with frontotemporal degeneration. For these patients, mundane life events such as filling up the car with gasoline or attending their daughter’s wedding are just as memorable as emotional events.
It is hard to imagine the isolation that people must feel when their memories are stripped of all emotional content. They cannot enjoy the rich details of life events, which color the memories of healthy individuals.
Understanding the complex interaction between emotion and memory can help us to identify what we do when we remember something, as well as why some things are better placed than others.