Why We Tend to Remember Stressful Events More Than Happy Events

“We usually have detailed images in [our] the mind from stressful experiences, like passing the driving test, even after many years… While a walk in the park on the same day is quickly forgotten,” said Oliver Wolf, a cognitive psychologist at Ruhr-Universität Bochum ( RUB) in Germany. .

Wolf is co-author of a study published last week in Current biology. He attempts to understand why humans tend to remember stressful experiences better than ordinary, ordinary ones. According to the researchers, what makes stressful memories more durable and distinct is that memories of objects from stressful situations are very closely related to each other and distinct from objects belonging to other experiences.

“On the one hand, stress can increase the distinctiveness of neural representations of central objects… On the other hand, stress – or more generally, negative emotional valence – can enhance memory by linking all relevant aspects of ‘a stressful episode together’, the study note the authors.

As part of the study, the researchers placed the participants in a simulation, where several everyday objects surrounded them. They exposed one group of participants to stress, not the others. The first set was able to remember its surroundings better than the second. “[I]It seems that the link between objects and stress triggers was crucial for memory improvement,” said Nikolai Axmacher, neuropsychologist at RUB, co-author of the study.


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However, this is not the first time that scientists have embarked on a study to understand why stressful memories persist more. In the past, researchers have suggested that our evolutionary underpinnings may have a role to play here. “It makes sense for attention to focus on potentially threatening information,” said Elizabeth Kensinger, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston College in the United States, in 2007.

She thinks humans are hardwired this way as an “evolutionary tactic” – to protect them from life-threatening situations later on. “It is more important for people, for their survival, to notice the lion in the bush than to notice the beautiful flower growing on the other side of the path,” said Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology at the University of Stanford, at the Washington Post. in 2018.

Experts also believe that dwelling on a memory makes it stronger – by strengthening the neural connections associated with it. Has evolution caused us to revisit stressful memories more often than happier ones? Experts did not elaborate.

However, Carstensen says age may have a role to play in the extent to which people choose to dwell on stressful memories. She believes that a lot of information comes to the fore in stressful situations that our brain likes to hold on to so it can deal with similar issues again. “We think what happens with age is that young people, because they have a long and nebulous future, really need to collect a lot of information, and so they remember a lot of things. that maybe will help them manage that future… The older people get, the more able they are to live in the present, and so focusing on positive information makes that present feel good,” he said. she explains.


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According to Kensinger, negative emotions like fear trigger increased activity in the part of the brain related to memories. As a result, the brain preserves emotionally charged memories in greater detail than neutral memories, as well as those with positive associations.

But if both happy and stressful memories are emotionally charged, what differentiates how we retain or retrieve the respective memories? The answer may lie in the body’s stress hormones – epinephrine and cortisol. Some experts suggest that their release during stressful situations results in stronger-than-usual activation of the cerebral amygdala, resulting in strong emotion-oriented signals to the brain’s hippocampus. The function of the amygdala is to attach emotional meaning to memories, and that of the hippocampus is to form, organize and store them. Ultimately, the impact of stress hormones on these parts of the brain results in stronger memories.

Additionally, “for a person’s mind to store a memory, proteins stimulate brain cell growth and form new connections… fMRI studies reveal greater cellular activity in [the brain regions associated with memory formation] when someone has a bad experience,” says an article from Medical News Today.

Phew! So, what is your strongest memory?

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