Have you ever wondered why you can remember things from long ago as if they happened yesterday, yet sometimes can't recall what you ate for dinner last night? According to a new study led by psychologists at the University of Toronto, it's because how much something means to you actually influences how you see it as well as how vividly you can recall it later.
"We've discovered that we see things that are emotionally arousing with greater clarity than those that are more mundane," says Rebecca Todd, a postdoctoral fellow in U of T's Department of Psychology and lead author of the study published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience. "Whether they're positive -- for example, a first kiss, the birth of a child, winning an award -- or negative, such as traumatic events, breakups, or a painful and humiliating childhood moment that we all carry with us, the effect is the same."
"What's more, we found that how vividly we perceive something in the first place predicts how vividly we will remember it later on," says Todd. "We call this 'emotionally enhanced vividness' and it is like the flash of a flashbub that illuminates an event as it's captured for memory."
By studying brain activity, Todd, psychology professor Adam Anderson and other colleagues at U of T, along with researchers at the University of Manchester and the University of California, San Diego found that the part of the brain responsible for tagging the emotional or motivational importance of things according to one's own past experience -- the amygdala -- is more active when looking at images that are rated as vivid. This increased activation in turn influences activity in both the visual cortex, enhancing activity linked to seeing objects, and in the posterior insula, a region that integrates sensations from the body.