Focus on context diminishes memory of negative events, researchers report

Faculty in the News: Florin Dolcos, Assistant Professor, Psychology

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In a new study, researchers report they can manipulate how the brain encodes and retains emotional memories. The scientists found that focusing on the neutral details of a disturbing scene can weaken a person’s later memories – and negative impressions – of that scene.

The findings, reported in the journal Neuropsychologia, could lead to the development of methods to increase psychological resilience in people who are likely to experience traumatic events – like soldiers, police officers or firefighters. Those plagued by depression or anxiety might also benefit from this kind of strategy, the researchers said.

 “We were interested in different properties of memories that are typically enhanced by emotion,” said Florin Dolcos, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who led the study with psychology professor Sanda Dolcos. “The idea was to see whether by engaging in an emotional-regulation strategy we can influence those types of memory properties.”

There are two categories of memory retrieval. A person may recall a lot of details about an event or experience, a process the researchers call “recollection.” Or an individual may have a sense of familiarity with the subject matter but retain no specifics.

“We and others showed a while ago that emotion tends to boost our memories,” Florin Dolcos said. “We have also known that emotion specifically boosts recollected memories.”

This memory-enhancing quality of emotion is useful, but it can be problematic for those who recall – again and again – the details of a disturbing or traumatic event, he said.  

“Negative memories could lead to clinical conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, where something that is really traumatic stays with specific details in people’s minds,” he said.

In the study, 19 participants had their brains scanned while they looked at photos with negative or neutral content – a bloody face or a tree, for example – superimposed on a neutral background. Functional MRI signaled which brain areas were activated during the task. An eye-tracker recorded where participants looked.

Before each photo, participants were asked to focus their attention either on the foreground or on the background of the image. After viewing it for four seconds, they rated how negatively the photo made them feel (not at all, very, or somewhere in between).

Read more : Illinois News Bureau