Your brain chooses not to remember so many things: your commute, the location of your keys, the name of that colleague who sits perilously close to you. One quality that does prompt a “right click, save as” from the mind is emotionality: If an experience — be it film or family — is packed with enough affective charge, you’re more likely to remember it. Or so says cognitive neuroscience.
But do those effects spill over? According to a new paper in Nature Neuroscience, it looks like they might. A team led by Arielle Tambini, now a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, assigned participants — 44 in a brain-imaging portion of the study, which we’ll focus on here — to one of two groups. Either they’d view emotionally intense images first and then neutral ones 10 to 30 minutes later, or neutral and then emotional sets. Then, six hours later, they were given a surprise memory task of the images they’d seen earlier in the day.
And the feelings did indeed spill over. The participants who saw the emotional images first had better recall of the neutral images than those who saw the neutral ones before beholding the emotional ones. (Note: To preserve its potency, this emotion-eliciting photo set isn’t displayed in news media; thus, we can’t show it.) The people who saw the emotional images first also had higher levels of skin conductance and greater connectivity in the amygdala and hippocampus when taking in the subsequent neutral imagery. These states apparently primed their brains to store information.
Senior author Lila Davachi, who runs an NYU lab dedicated to studying memory, said in statement that these results show how memory isn’t just a matter of recalling events in the outside world, but depends on your internal states — which can color future experiences. “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,” she said. One takeaway: If you want to remember everything for your next presentation, maybe listen to Bon Iver before studying your notes.