How emotion keeps some memories vivid

September, 2012

Emotionally arousing images that are remembered more vividly were seen more vividly. This may be because the amygdala focuses visual attention rather than more cognitive attention on the image.

We know that emotion affects memory. We know that attention affects perception (see, e.g., Visual perception heightened by meditation training; How mindset can improve vision). Now a new study ties it all together. The study shows that emotionally arousing experiences affect how well we see them, and this in turn affects how vividly we later recall them.

The study used images of positively and negatively arousing scenes and neutral scenes, which were overlaid with varying amounts of “visual noise” (like the ‘snow’ we used to see on old televisions). College students were asked to rate the amount of noise on each picture, relative to a specific image they used as a standard. There were 25 pictures in each category, and three levels of noise (less than standard, equal to standard, and more than standard).

Different groups explored different parameters: color; gray-scale; less noise (10%, 15%, 20% as compared to 35%, 45%, 55%); single exposure (each picture was only presented once, at one of the noise levels).

Regardless of the actual amount of noise, emotionally arousing pictures were consistently rated as significantly less noisy than neutral pictures, indicating that people were seeing them more clearly. This was true in all conditions.

Eye-tracking analysis ruled out the idea that people directed their attention differently for emotionally arousing images, but did show that more eye fixations were associated both with less noisy images and emotionally arousing ones. In other words, people were viewing emotionally important images as if they were less noisy.

One group of 22 students were given a 45-minute spatial working memory task after seeing the images, and then asked to write down all the details they could remember about the pictures they remembered seeing. The amount of detail they recalled was taken to be an indirect measure of vividness.

A second group of 27 students were called back after a week for a recognition test. They were shown 36 new images mixed in with the original 75 images, and asked to rate them as new, familiar, or recollected. They were also asked to rate the vividness of their recollection.

Although, overall, emotionally arousing pictures were not more likely to be remembered than neutral pictures, both experiments found that pictures originally seen as more vivid (less noise) were remembered more vividly and in more detail.

Brain scans from 31 students revealed that the amygdala was more active when looking at images rated as vivid, and this in turn increased activity in the visual cortex and in the posterior insula (which integrates sensations from the body). This suggests that the increased perceptual vividness is not simply a visual phenomenon, but part of a wider sensory activation.

There was another neural response to perceptual vividness: activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the posterior parietal cortex was negatively correlated with vividness. This suggests that emotion is not simply increasing our attentional focus, it is instead changing it by reducing effortful attentional and executive processes in favor of more perceptual ones. This, perhaps, gives emotional memories their different ‘flavor’ compared to more neutral memories.

These findings clearly need more exploration before we know exactly what they mean, but the main finding from the study is that the vividness with which we recall some emotional experiences is rooted in the vividness with which we originally perceived it.

The study highlights how emotion can sharpen our attention, building on previous findings that emotional events are more easily detected when visibility is difficult, or attentional demands are high. It is also not inconsistent with a study I reported on last year, which found some information needs no repetition to be remembered because the amygdala decrees it of importance.

I should add, however, that the perceptual effect is not the whole story — the current study found that, although perceptual vividness is part of the reason for memories that are vividly remembered, emotional importance makes its own, independent, contribution. This contribution may occur after the event.

It’s suggested that individual differences in these reactions to emotionally enhanced vividness may underlie an individual’s vulnerability to post-traumatic stress disorder.


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