Positive Emotions Can Improve Memory

9 Aug

The way we understand learning has changed quite drastically over the years.  One big change has been moving away from stressful, pressured rote memorization to a cognitive and fun thought process.  The process of thinking through a situation and actively coming up with a solution is much different than simply memorizing dates and names.  The results are also much different when the student is actively engaged because they are having fun and being rewarded, versus being forced to achieve a result out of fear of punishment.  While this all makes sense, is there any proof?  Well, a new study adds evidence to the power of positive emotion in learning.

According to Science Daily:  “Combining a positive emotional component with a given stimulus promotes memory for future stimuli of the same type, report scientists.  Rewarding learning today can improve learning tomorrow; this is one of the conclusions reached by researchers from the Cognition and Brain Plasticity research group of the Institute of Biomedical Research of Bellvitge (IDIBELL) and the University of Barcelona (UB) in their last work on the impact of emotions on the way we remember things. The study, published in the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory journal, demonstrates for the first time in humans that the effects of the association of positive emotions in the process of acquisition and consolidation of memories extend selectively and prospectively over time.”

Here is what lead researcher Dr. Javiera Oyarzún had to say, “Our brain works as a sorting machine. Every time we expose ourselves to a stimulus, our brain sorts it out in a category, such as people, animals, objects, etc. This way, whenever we receive new information we can integrate it with similar available information thanks to our ability to generalize, and then anticipate our responses to similar stimuli that may occur in the future.  When storing these stimuli, it is known that emotionally charged events are remembered better than neutral events. For example, we usually do not remember the details surrounding our usual way back home, but if during that time we receive a phone call with good news, or we witness a car accident, we will remember those details with much more precision.” 

In one part of the experiment, researchers showed subjects pictures in different categories. For one particular category, the participant received a reward every time it was shown to associate those particular images with a positive action. As expected, the participants remembered images linked to rewards much better. However, the positive effects that rewards have on memory were not seen until about 24 hours later, suggesting that sleep may play an integral part that is necessary for the memory enhancing effects to take place.  So, is it better to tell a child to get an “A” or he or she is grounded or if they get an “A” they will get something they really want?    According to this study… the latter is probably the way to go.

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