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Pain to remember: a single incidental association with pain leads to increased memory for neutral items one year later



BioRxiv– the preprint server for biology


Negative and positive experiences can exert a strong influence on later memory. Our emotional experiences are composed of many different elements – people, place, things – most of them neutral. Do emotional experiences lead to enhanced long-term [recall] for these neutral elements as well? Demonstrating a lasting effect of emotion on memory is particularly important if memory for emotional events is to adaptively guide behavior days, weeks, or years later. We thus tested whether aversive experiences modulate very long-term episodic memory in an fMRI experiment. Participants experienced episodes of high or low pain in conjunction with the presentation of incidental, trial- unique neutral object pictures. In a scanned surprise immediate memory test, we found no effect of pain on recognition strength. Critically, in a follow-up memory test one year later we found that pain significantly enhanced memory. Neurally, we provide a novel demonstration of activity predicting memory one year later, whereby greater insula activity and more unique distributed patterns of insular activity in the initial session correlated with memory for pain-associated objects. Our results suggest that pairing learning episodes with arousing experiences may lead to very long-lasting memory enhancements.

This study found that associating a pain (heat on the skin) that was intense but tolerable with a random image enhanced remote recall of the image a year later.  This implies that memories are enhanced by being associated with painful experiences, not a surprise but comforting to find that it is experimentally detectable.  A memory that is enhanced by association with pain describes many of the most common memories that we retain.  Think about it: have you forgotten that time you burned your fingers on the waffle iron at age four?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 2016-01-13 07:04

    Isn’t this in the ‘water is really wet, really’ category?


    • 2016-01-13 11:44

      The value of this study lies in the fact that it kept psychologists busy and out of trouble with an MRI scanner for a while. But seriously, the real value of this study lies in the fact that it confirmed experimentally a well-known truth. If the study had failed, we would know that something is wrong– most likely with the experimental setup. In addition, fMRI activitiy in the insula correlated with this type of memory enhancement, so we can infer that the insula is an area of activity for setting down aversive memories. The extension of this idea is the theory that we can improve memory for a particular set of sense impressions by associating them with intensely arousing stimuli of any sort– even beating a drum or clashing cymbals. A dictator who wanted to control his people might associate his image with such arousing stimuli and have his propaganda director use this technique when indoctrinating his disciples. All based on the simple observation that one’s memory is improved by a slap in the face.


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