Nav: Home

When emotional memories intrude, focusing on context could help, study finds

June 14, 2018

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- When negative memories intrude, focusing on the contextual details of the incident rather than the emotional fallout could help minimize cognitive disruption and redirect the brain's resources to the task at hand, suggests a new study by psychologists at the University of Illinois.

"Everyone has encountered something distressing either in the recent past or the remote past. These memories can pop into our minds and distract from whatever we are doing," said study leader Florin Dolcos, a professor of psychology at Illinois. "Understanding what we can do to stay focused is important, not only for people in extreme cases where such memories can lead to difficulties in daily living - such as those with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression - but for everyone."

In a paper published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, the researchers examined how brain activity and performance on a memory task changed when the participants were told to focus on the emotional or contextual aspects of triggered memories.

Thirty-three study participants completed detailed, lengthy surveys asking about a variety of events in their lives. One to two weeks later, participants performed cognitive memory tasks during a functional MRI scan, which is used to monitor activity in the brain. The researchers chose descriptions of negative events that the participants had written about, from sporting defeats to personal losses, and used them to trigger those memories during the tasks.

"They provided the cues themselves, so when we presented those cues in the scanner, we were sure we were triggering specific memories," said Sanda Dolcos, a professor of psychology and co-author of the study. "When they filled out the questionnaire, they did not know that we would trigger those memories when they came to do the task."

For half of the triggered memories, the participants were instructed to focus on the emotional aspects of their memories; for the other half, the participants were instructed to shift their focus away from the emotion and toward the contextual details of the memory, such as where the incident happened, who they were with, what they were wearing and other details.

"When subjects focused on the emotional aspect of their memories - how they felt, including the physical sensations - their cognitive performance was lower relative to their control tasks," said Alexandru Iordan, the first author of the paper who recently graduated from Dolcos' group with a Ph.D. and is now at the University of Michigan. "But when they were focusing on the nonemotional, contextual aspects, then their working memory performance was not impacted. They had better task performance and less negative effects when focusing on context than when focusing on emotion."

The fMRI also found changes in brain activity. When participants focused on emotion, there was increased activity in regions of the brain involving emotional processing, but reduced activity in regions involved in executive function, such as reasoning and memory. However, when the participants focused on contextual details of their memories, there was a dampening in the regions involved in distraction and emotional processing and an increase in both activity and communication among regions associated with executive function and attention.

"When regions in the brain that are involved in processing emotion are stimulated, it takes resources away from regions that are helping you stay focused on the task at hand," Florin Dolcos said. "With this shift in focus from emotion to context, you're putting resources back into the regions that are processing the task."

The researchers say the technique of focusing on context could help those who struggle with intrusive or distracting emotional memories to have a quick response ready so that when those memories are triggered, they can focus on the task at hand and then later process the memories more deeply with other techniques, such as cognitive reappraisal.

"This is important because another emotional strategy that people employ against such memories is suppression, which means bottling up your emotions. Suppression is actually associated with such clinical conditions as anxiety and depression, and it is not healthy," Florin Dolcos said. "Instead of suppressing or stifling those emotional memories, we simply shift the focus and bring to life some other aspects of the same memory. That leads to a reduction in how much those memories interfere with whatever we're doing."

The researchers are working with subjects with depression and PTSD to evaluate the effectiveness of their technique over time.

"We are also working on interventions to help people learn these strategies and apply them on a day-to-day basis," Sanda Dolcos said. "The beauty of this strategy is that it both reduces the emotional response of the intrusive memory and doesn't affect cognitive performance. Anyone can use it at any time."
-end-
The University of Illinois funded this work. Florin and Sanda Dolcos are also affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois.

Editor's notes: To reach Florin Dolcos, call 217-418-3992; email fdolcos@illinois.edu. To reach Sanda Dolcos, call 217-418-3995; email sdolcos@illinois.edu.

The paper "Brain activity and network interactions in the impact of internal emotional distraction" is available online. DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhy129

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Related Memory Articles:

Taking photos of experiences boosts visual memory, impairs auditory memory
A quick glance at any social media platform will tell you that people love taking photos of their experiences -- whether they're lying on the beach, touring a museum, or just waiting in line at the grocery store.
Think you know how to improve your memory? Think again
Research from Katherine Duncan at the University of Toronto suggests we may have to rethink how we improve memory.
Improving memory with magnets
The ability to remember sounds, and manipulate them in our minds, is incredibly important to our daily lives -- without it we would not be able to understand a sentence, or do simple arithmetic.
Who has the better memory -- men or women?
In the battle of the sexes, women have long claimed that they can remember things better and longer than men can.
New study of the memory through optogenetics
A collaboration between Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and Harvard University pioneers the increase of memory using optogenetics in mice in Spain.
Peppermint tea can help improve your memory
Peppermint tea can improve long-term and working memory and in healthy adults.
A new glimpse into working memory
MIT study finds bursts of neural activity as the brain holds information in mind, overturns a long-held model.
Memory ensembles
For over forty years, neuro-scientists have been interested in the biological mechanisms underlying the storage of the information that our brain records every day.
What is your memory style?
Why is it that some people have richly detailed recollection of past experiences (episodic memory), while others tend to remember just the facts without details (semantic memory)?
Watching a memory form
Neuroscientists at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science have discovered a novel mechanism for memory formation.

Related Memory Reading:

Unlimited Memory: How to Use Advanced Learning Strategies to Learn Faster, Remember More and be More Productive
by Kevin Horsley (Author)

Kevin Horsley Broke a World Memory Record in 2013...

And You're About to Learn How to Use His Memory Strategies to Learn Faster, Be More Productive and Achieve More Success

Most people never tap into 10% of their potential for memory. In this book, you're about to learn:

How the World's Top Memory Experts Concentrate and Remember Any Information at Will, and How You Can Too

Do you ever feel like you're too busy, too stressed or just too distracted to concentrate and get work done? In Unlimited Memory, you'll learn how the world's best memory masters... View Details


Memory Rescue: Supercharge Your Brain, Reverse Memory Loss, and Remember What Matters Most
by Daniel G. Amen (Author)

A proven program from #1 New York Times bestselling author and brain researcher Dr. Daniel Amen to help you change your brain and improve your memory today!
Brain imaging research demonstrates that memory loss actually starts in the brain decades before you have any symptoms. Learn the actions you can take to help not just prevent memory loss later in life . . . but to begin restoring the memory you may have already lost.

Expert physician Dr. Amen reveals how a multipronged strategy―including dietary changes, physical and mental exercises, and spiritual... View Details


Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
by Joshua Foer (Author)

The blockbuster phenomenon that charts an amazing journey of the mind while revolutionizing our concept of memory

An instant bestseller that is poised to become a classic, Moonwalking with Einstein recounts Joshua Foer's yearlong quest to improve his memory under the tutelage of top "mental athletes." He draws on cutting-edge research, a surprising cultural history of remembering, and venerable tricks of the mentalist's trade to transform our understanding of human memory. From the United States Memory Championship to deep within the author's own mind, this is an... View Details


The Memory Book: The Classic Guide to Improving Your Memory at Work, at School, and at Play
by Harry Lorayne (Author), Jerry Lucas (Author)

Unleash the hidden power of your mind through Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas's simple, fail-safe memory system, and you can become more effective, more imaginative, and more powerful, at work, at school, in sports and play. Discover how easy it is to: file phone numbers, data, figures, and appointments right in your head; learn foreign words and phrases with ease; read with speed--and greater understanding; shine in the classroom--and shorten study hours; dominate social situations, and more.
From the Paperback edition. View Details


Memory Man (Memory Man series)
by David Baldacci (Author)


With over 110 million copies of his novels in print, David Baldacci is one of the most widely read storytellers in the world. Now he introduces a startling, original new character: a man with perfect memory who must solve his own family's murder.
MEMORY MAN
Amos Decker's life changed forever--twice.
The first time was on the gridiron. A big, towering athlete, he was the only person from his hometown of Burlington ever to go pro. But his career ended before it had a chance to begin. On his very first play, a violent helmet-to-helmet collision knocked him off the... View Details


Memory (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures)
by Lois McMaster Bujold (Author)

Restored to life after being pronounced dead, Miles Vorkosigan realizes that the event has left him with a profound weakness and is dismissed from his job, but things are further complicated when he remembers something he saw while dead. Reprint. View Details


The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers
by Daniel L. Schacter (Author)

A groundbreaking work by one of the world's foremost psychologists that delves into the complex behavior of memory.

 

In this fascinating study, Daniel L. Schacter explores instances of what we would consider memory failure—absent-mindedness, transience, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence—and suggests instead that these miscues are actually indications that memory is functioning as designed. Drawing from vivid scientific research and creative literature, as well as high-profile events in which memory has figured significantly (Bill... View Details


How to Develop a Brilliant Memory Week by Week: 50 Proven Ways to Enhance Your Memory Skills
by Dominic O'Brien (Author)

Written by eight times World Memory Champion, Dominic O'Brien this book is a complete course in memory enhancement.  Dominic takes you step-by-step through an ingenious program of skills, introducing all his tried and tested techniques on which he has built his triumphant championship performances.  Pacing the course in line with his expert understanding of how the brain responds to basic memory training, Dominic offers strategies and tips that will expand your mental capacities at a realistic but impressive rate. View Details


In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind
by Eric R. Kandel (Author)

“A stunning book.”―Oliver Sacks

Memory binds our mental life together. We are who we are in large part because of what we learn and remember. But how does the brain create memories? Nobel Prize winner Eric R. Kandel intertwines the intellectual history of the powerful new science of the mind―a combination of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and molecular biology―with his own personal quest to understand memory. A deft mixture of memoir and history, modern biology and behavior, In Search of Memory brings readers from Kandel's childhood in... View Details


Memory
by Alan Baddeley (Author), Michael W. Eysenck (Author), Michael C. Anderson (Author)

This best-selling textbook presents a comprehensive and accessible overview of the study of memory. Written by three of the world’s leading researchers in the field, it contains everything the student needs to know about the scientific approach to memory and its applications.

Each chapter of the book is written by one of the three authors, an approach which takes full advantage of their individual expertise and style, creating a more personal and accessible text. This enhances students’ enjoyment of the book, allowing them to share the authors’ own fascination with human... View Details

Best Science Podcasts 2018

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2018. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

The Person You Become
Over the course of our lives, we shed parts of our old selves, embrace new ones, and redefine who we are. This hour, TED speakers explore ideas about the experiences that shape the person we become. Guests include aerobatics pilot and public speaker Janine Shepherd, writers Roxane Gay and Taiye Selasi, activist Jackson Bird, and fashion executive Kaustav Dey.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#479 Garden of Marvels (Rebroadcast)
This week we're learning about botany and the colorful science of gardening. Author Ruth Kassinger joins us to discuss her book "A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of the Way Plants Work." And we'll speak to NASA researcher Gioia Massa about her work to solve the technical challenges of gardening in space.