News Stories

How to Remember (and Forget)

Do depressed people make better political candidates because they remember more history (and are thus not doomed to repeat it)? Sad people have another political advantage: they are better than happy people at recognizing faces. You'd think you'd forget the BAD stuff, such a gory slaughterhouse or the devastating scene of a natural disaster, rather than the good, but those episodes are actually EASIER to remember. But in case you want to forget them, scientists are ready to help you.

Recalling painful memories while under the influence of a specific drug reduces the brain's ability to re-record the negative emotions associated with them. This study challenges the theory that memories cannot be modified once they are stored in the brain. Researcher Marie-France Marin says, "Metyrapone is a drug that significantly decreases the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that is involved in memory recall." Manipulating cortisol close to the time of forming new memories can decrease the negative emotions that may be associated with them. Cortisol is hormone that decreases male testosterone levels (and thus libido) when a man is under stress.

Researcher Sonia Lupien says, "The results show that when we decrease stress hormone levels at the time of recall of a negative event, we can impair the memory for this negative event with a long-lasting effect." 33 men participated in the study, which involved learning a story composed of neutral and negative events. Three days later, they were divided into three groups--participants in the first group received a single dose of metyrapone, the second received double, while the third were given placebo. They were then asked to remember the story. Their memory performance was then evaluated again four days later, once the drug had cleared out..

Marin says, "We were surprised that the decreased memory of negative information was still present once cortisol levels had returned to normal." The research offers hope to people, like returning soldiers, who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

But if you want to REMEMBER, the key is practice, and a little goes a long way: Researchers have found the effects of practice on the brain have remarkable staying power. When participants were shown visual patterns like faces, which are highly familiar objects, and abstract patterns, which are much less frequently encountered, they were able to retain very specific information about those patterns one to two years later. Over the course of two consecutive days, participants were asked to identify a specific face or pattern from a larger group of images. The task was challenging because images were degraded--faces were cropped, for example--and shown very briefly. Participants had difficulty identifying the correct images in the early stages, but accuracy rates steadily climbed with practice.

Psychologist Zahra Hussain says, "We found that this type of learning, called perceptual learning, was very precise and long-lasting. These long-lasting effects arose out of relatively brief experience with the patterns--about two hours, followed by nothing for several months, or years."

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