On January 28th, 2016 we learned about

Pain pushes persistence of even mundane memories

If you have a quiz or speech coming up, you might consider sitting on thumbtack while you study. Aside from keeping you from dozing off in your books, the pain may actually help you remember what you’re looking at, well enough that you might be able to recall mundane details a year later. It’s important, however, that you don’t get upset by that piercing sensation, as strong emotion may derail the accuracy of your future memories.

To test pain’s role in memory, volunteers were asked to look at images while having their left arm lightly burned by a thermode. Participants helped calibrate the amount of heat they were receiving, so that there was a possible range of eight pain levels, with eight being as much as people felt they could endure. The arm-burning was then done while the test subject looked at pictures of mundane objects while being scanned by in an fMRI.

Arms burned, lessons learned

After various combinations of boring pictures and varying amounts of pain, people were quizzed about what they could remember. At first the pain seemed to play no role in how many photographed objects people could remember, with everyone recalling around 75% of what they saw. However, a year later, people could recall object much better if they’d seen them while an 8-point burn was being applied to their arm. Objects viewed without pain were much harder to remember.

This isn’t entirely surprising, since remembering a pain-filled event could have obvious safety implications. The whole idea of “learning the hard way” is that you only need to burn yourself on the stove once to learn that you shouldn’t touch it when it’s hot. It seems that the pain helps preserve the memories, possibly in the insula, where some bodily sensation and emotional processing takes place.

Durable, but distorted

While emotion is often wrapped up in painful moments, likely in the form of fear or anger, it may actually corrupt otherwise well-preserved memories. This test was looking at an emotionally neutral situation, as the participants were volunteers who could opt out if they felt uncomfortable. Previous studies, on the other hand, have found that emotionally charged moments, even without physical pain, are often vividly remembered, but not as accurate as the object recognition described above. It’s hard to untangle emotion from many events, but perhaps this concept can be serve us the first time we accidentally encounter something painful, rather than the later moments when we’ve learned to fear or dread further contact.

Source: Pain produces memory gain by Laura Sanders, Science News

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