The newsletter of the Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers University

The time you were mugged at gunpoint in the parking garage, or the moment you saw your newborn for the first time—such experiences remain vivid for a lifetime. Countless studies show that the more emotional that an experience is, the better we remember it. But not all emotional experiences are created equal, according to a study in the July 5, 2005, Journal of Neuroscience.  People appear to recall events that directly preceded a happy event and forget those that came before a sad one.

German researchers showed volunteers a series of 8 photos, each with a descriptive title beneath. Seven of the eight belonged to the same category, for example, “apple, pear, banana, grapefruit” and so on. One item was an oddball, such as “fire truck.” As would be expected people tended to remember the oddball item better.

Sometimes the oddball item was emotionally positive, such as a cute baby or a pretty flower; other times the item was negative, such as a bloody severed hand. Since emotional memories are more durable, either the positive or negative image evoked a stronger emotional response, and thus would be remembered more vividly than the neutral images.

However, the volunteers tended to have better recall for items that came before the positive images, compared to those that came before the negative ones. The researchers speculate that this may have something to do with the role of emotion in learning. The brain may have evolved a bias toward remembering events that lead to a positive experience, or reward, such as locating a source of food or water. In contrast, we may be wired to forget events that lead to a negative experience.

Further Reading:

  • “Noradrenergic modulation of emotion-induced forgetting and remembering,” by Rene Hurlemann and others. (The Journal of Neuroscience, ,July 6, 2005, Vol. 25, No. 27, pp. 6343-6349.)