Emotional experiences boost learning, memory: Study

by L&D16 Jun 2016
Try and remember the details of your most recent walk or drive home.

You will most likely find it a challenging task.

But if during that time you received a phone call with good news or witnessed a car accident, there's a good chance you will remember those details with much more precision.

This is because emotionally charged events are remembered better than neutral events, according to Javiera Oyarzún, an author of a study looking into the impact of emotions on the way we remember things.

The study was conducted by researchers from the Cognition and Brain Plasticity research group of the Institute of Biomedical Research of Bellvitge (IDIBELL) and the University of Barcelona (UB).

As part of the study, the researchers sought to discover whether a positive experience could also influence the way we remember subsequent events that are similar but do not present this emotional component.

Oyarzun said they “designed a study with volunteers who were shown a series of images corresponding to two categories (objects and animals), but were only rewarded by one of these categories. For example, every time an image of an animal appeared, the participant received a financial reward, ie, this stimulus was associated with an emotionally positive action".

As expected, participants remembered those images associated with a reward better. In a second session, however, they were shown new images of animals and objects, but they knew this time there was no reward.

"What we saw is that participants not only remembered "rewarding" images better, but also those of the same semantic category despite knowing that they were not associated with any reward," Oyarzun said.

One of the most significant aspects of the published work is that the effects of emotionally positive stimuli on memory storage are not observed until after 24 hours. Therefore, it was necessary that the participant sleeps.

The researchers said that during sleep the process of memory consolidation (in which new memories are stabilised based on the integration of new and old information) is maximised.

Consequently, it seems that the prospective memory enhancing effect caused by positive emotions requires this period of consolidation during shut-eye.

The study is published in the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory journal.