Why Do We Remember Emotional Events Better Than Non-emotional Ones?

Summary: Researchers identified a mechanism within the brain that tags information with emotional association for enhanced memory. High-frequency brain waves in the amygdala and hippocampus are critical for enhancing emotional memories.

Source: Columbia University

Most people remember emotional events—like their wedding day—very clearly, but researchers are not sure how the human brain prioritizes emotional events in memory.

In a study published on January 16, 2023 in Nature Human Behaviour, Joshua Jacobs, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia Engineering, and his team identified a specific neural mechanism in the human brain that tags information with emotional associations for enhanced memory.

The team demonstrated that high-frequency brain waves in the amygdala, a hub for emotional processes, and the hippocampus, a hub for memory processes, are critical to enhancing memory for emotional stimuli. Disruptions to this neural mechanism, brought on either by electrical brain stimulation or depression, impair memory specifically for emotional stimuli.

Rising prevalence of memory disorders

The rising prevalence of memory disorders such as dementia has highlighted the damaging effects that memory loss has on individuals and society. Disorders such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can also feature imbalanced memory processes, and have become increasingly prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Understanding how the brain naturally regulates what information gets prioritized for storage and what fades away could provide critical insight for developing new therapeutic approaches to strengthening memory for those at risk of memory loss, or for normalizing memory processes in those at risk of dysregulation.

“It’s easier to remember emotional events—like the birth of your child—than other events from around the same time,” says Salman E. Qasim, lead author of the study, who started this project during his Ph.D. in Jacobs’ lab at Columbia Engineering. “The brain clearly has a natural mechanism for strengthening certain memories, and we wanted to identify it.”

The difficulty of studying neural mechanisms in humans

Most investigations into neural mechanisms take place in animals such as rats, because such studies require direct access to the brain to record brain activity and perform experiments that demonstrate causality, such as careful disruption of neural circuits. But it is difficult to observe or characterize a complex cognitive phenomenon like emotional memory enhancement in animal studies.

To study this process directly in humans, Qasim and Jacobs analyzed data from memory experiments conducted with epilepsy patients undergoing direct, intracranial brain recording for seizure localization and treatment. During thse recordings, epilepsy patients memorized lists of words while the electrodes placed in their hippocampus and amygdala recorded the brain’s electrical activity.

Studying brain-wave patterns of emotional words

By systematically characterizing the emotional associations of each word using crowd-sourced emotion ratings, Qasim found that participants remembered more emotional words, such as “dog” or “knife,” better than more neutral words, such as “chair.”

When looking at the associated brain activity, the researchers noted that whenever participants successfully remembered emotional words, high-frequency neural activity (30-128 Hz) would become more prevalent in the amygdala-hippocampal circuit.

When participants remembered more neutral words, or failed to remember a word altogether, this pattern was absent.

The researchers analyzed this pattern across a data set of 147 patients and found a clear link between participants’ enhanced memory for emotional words and the prevalence in their brains of high-frequency brain waves across the amygdala-hippocampal circuit.

“Finding this pattern of brain activity linking emotions and memory was very exciting to us, because prior research has shown how important high-frequency activity in the hippocampus is to non-emotional memory,” said Jacobs.

“It immediately cued us to think about the more general, causal implications—if we elicit high-frequency activity in this circuit, using therapeutic interventions, will we be able to strengthen memories at will?”

Electrical stimulation disrupts memory for emotional words

In order to establish whether this high-frequency activity actually reflected a causal mechanism, Jacobs and his team formulated a unique approach to replicate the kind of experimental disruptions typically reserved for animal research.

First, they analyzed a subset of these patients who had performed the memory task while direct electrical stimulation was applied to the hippocampus for half of the words that participants had to memorize.

They found that electrical stimulation, which has a mixed history of either benefiting or diminishing memory depending on its usage, clearly and consistently impaired memory specifically for emotional words.

Uma Mohan, another Ph.D. student in Jacobs’ lab at the time and co-author on the paper, noted that this stimulation also diminished high-frequency activity in the hippocampus. This provided causal evidence that by knocking out the pattern of brain activity that correlated with emotional memory, stimulation was also selectively diminishing emotional memory.

Depression acts similarly to brain stimulation

Qasim further hypothesized that depression, which can involve dysregulated emotional memory, might act similarly to brain stimulation. He analyzed patients’ emotional memory in parallel with mood assessments the patients took to characterize their psychiatric state.

In fact, in the subset of patients with depression, the team observed a concurrent decrease in emotion-mediated memory and high-frequency activity in the hippocampus and amygdala.

This shows a drawing of a brain
The rising prevalence of memory disorders such as dementia has highlighted the damaging effects that memory loss has on individuals and society. Image is in the public domain

“By combining stimulation, recording, and psychometric assessment, they were able to demonstrate causality to a degree that you don’t always see in studies with human brain recordings,” said Bradley Lega, a neurosurgeon and scientist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who was not an author on the paper.

“We know high-frequency activity is associated with neuronal firing, so these findings open new avenues of research in humans and animals about how certain stimuli engage neurons in memory circuits.”

Next steps

Qasim, who is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, is now pursuing this avenue of research by investigating how individual neurons in the human brain fire during emotional memory processes.

Qasim and Jacobs hope that their work might also inspire animal research exploring how this high-frequency activity is linked to norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter linked to attentional processes that they theorize might be behind the enhanced memory for emotional stimuli.

Finally, they hope that future research will target high-frequency activity in the amygdala-hippocampal circuit to strengthen and protect memory, particularly emotional memory.

“Our emotional memories are one of the most critical aspects of the human experience, informing everything from our decisions to our entire personality,” Qasim added. “Any steps we can take to mitigate their loss in memory disorders or prevent their hijacking in psychiatric disorders is hugely exciting.”

About this memory research news

Author: Press Office
Source: Columbia University
Contact: Press Office – Columbia University
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Neuronal activity in the human amygdala and hippocampus enhances emotional memory encoding” by Salman E. Qasim et al. Nature Human Behavior


Neuronal activity in the human amygdala and hippocampus enhances emotional memory encoding

Emotional events comprise our strongest and most valuable memories. Here we examined how the brain prioritizes emotional information for storage using direct brain recording and deep brain stimulation.

First, 148 participants undergoing intracranial electroencephalographic (iEEG) recording performed an episodic memory task. Participants were most successful at remembering emotionally arousing stimuli.

High-frequency activity (HFA), a correlate of neuronal spiking activity, increased in both the hippocampus and the amygdala when participants successfully encoded emotional stimuli.

Next, in a subset of participants (N = 19), we show that applying high-frequency electrical stimulation to the hippocampus selectively diminished memory for emotional stimuli and specifically decreased HFA.

Finally, we show that individuals with depression (N = 19) also exhibit diminished emotion-mediated memory and HFA.

By demonstrating how direct stimulation and symptoms of depression unlink HFA, emotion and memory, we show the causal and translational potential of neural activity in the amygdalohippocampal circuit for prioritizing emotionally arousing memories.

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  1. I have been reading lot of articles about stress,We must take care of our personal health means internal channels.Teaching yoga for the last 30 years realized senior years we need more yoga practice focusing on breathing not necessary Marathon runners,slow moves.Mind gets calmer & relaxtaion prevails.Attention from family,gyms or community is very important.Bond to communicate with others,avoiding negative people from your life if possible.From my personal experiences writing please,60 years battles finally felt comfortable to express to the world,take charge of your thoughts means personal health.#Helping others through my yoga & martial art teachings to the world,traveling & teaching International communities as all cultures are facing stress & tension.Release negativity,hostility & anger with activities not only counseling please.Martial art practice release my stress & Ananda yoga added relaxation,peace & joy.Moving from India to United States 1966 with my young Surgeon husband,raising three beautiful & loving children was not easy but surrendering to God & practicing activities at the age of 82,still teaching,practicing,traveling & enjoying 58 years of married life with seven grandchildren.Feel connected with #Linkedin members & guidance from other colleagues.

  2. Negative memories are not for survival rather they keep us guarded.Subconscious mind is very powerful,keep holding anger,hostility & evil things.Yoga practice engaging deep nose breathing & practicing asanas can release toxins.Person can feel free.Negative emotions are painful & create family problems.
    Free spirit & clear conscious can set us free & enjoy our free style life.
    Practice of yoga, martial arts or any other activity is available or suitable must try please.

  3. Interesting. I am wondering whether hard problem of conscious experience is simply the first flush of unique emotional experience that forms new memory? I can think of some indirect evidence. If today I have excellent dinner and have a unique experience, tomorrow if I am asked to remember I will easily recollect the pleasant subjective experience. The intensity will slightly reduce. Thus I am only proposing the possibility that subjective consciousness may be related to memory circuits. The initial formation is unique but then it is but a memory.

  4. I would think it a survival mechanism.
    We need to remember important things.
    Don’t stand too close to the edge of the swimming pool or someone might push you in.
    Don’t eat wild fruit you find in the bush unless you ABOLUTELY know it is safe.
    Alway look where you are putting your feet!!!
    Drop Latin, the thumps on the back when you make a mistake are NOT worth it (AND no help at all).
    And so on . . .

  5. More negative emotions stay in the subconscious level they trigger & cause unhappiness & depression.Person keeps repeating,feels miserable & create negative atmosphere around the family & friends. Practice of yoga meditation calm the mind & add relaxation & peace. Harmony in the mind & body is extremely important to enjoy life.

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