How emotion enhances the feeling of remembering

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Studies examining memories of arousing 'real-life' events show that emotion heightens the feeling of remembering, without necessarily enhancing the objective accuracy of the memories. We measured brain activity associated with the feeling of remembering emotional and neutral photos. Subjects indicated whether recognition was accompanied by a recollection of details about the study episode ('remember') or not ('know'). 'Remember' judgments were boosted for emotional photos, but accuracy did not differ. For neutral photos, 'remember' judgments were related to enhanced activity in the parahippocampal cortex, previously related to recognition of visual details, which one might expect to supply the retrieval clues for a 'remember' judgment. In contrast, 'remember' judgments for emotional photos were associated with enhanced activity in the amygdala, suggesting that subjects rely on arousal and perceptual fluency to evaluate these memories. For the first time, we identify the neural mechanisms underlying the enhanced feeling of remembering for emotional events.

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Figure 1: Behavioral results showing an enhanced sense of remembering with emotion, but no difference in accuracy for emotional and neutral photos.
Figure 2: Regions of interest showing a differential pattern of activation across trial types.
Figure 3: Mean activation values revealing a three-way interaction of response ('remember'/'know') × type of photo (emotional/neutral) × region (right amygdala/right parahippocampus).


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This study was supported by the US National Institutes of Health, MH62104 to E.A.P., and the Beatrice and Samuel A. Seaver Foundation. We thank L. Davachi, C. Ranganath and D. Heeger for helpful comments on a previous draft of this paper; A. Warlaumont for her help in preparing stimuli; M. Bobinski, A. Nusbaum, K. Nearing, K. Stedenfeld, J. Pearson and G. Tourtellot for help in data analysis; and K. Sanzenbach for assistance with running subjects.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth A Phelps.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Table 1

Regions throughout the rest of the brain that showed differential BOLD signal for different trial types involving the new trials. (PDF 53 kb)

Supplementary Table 2

Regions throughout the rest of the brain that showed differential BOLD signal for R (“remember”) and K (“know”) responses regardless of type of stimuli. (PDF 65 kb)

Supplementary Note (PDF 37 kb)

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Sharot, T., Delgado, M. & Phelps, E. How emotion enhances the feeling of remembering. Nat Neurosci 7, 1376–1380 (2004) doi:10.1038/nn1353

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