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Reshaping How Emotional We Feel About Negative Memories

Robert Adrian Hillman

We all have memories that bring us down, whether a bad breakup or a prolonged illness. New research suggests that we can reshape how we emotionally process those negative memories through simple instruction. And for those with the worst memories to process, such as victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), the research offers hope for new future therapies.

The new study is part of a body of research to better understand cognitive reappraisal – how people can either intensify or weaken their emotions in response to particular stimuli. Most past studies have used images or film clips as the stimuli. This study is one of only a handful to investigate personally relevant past experiences, says Alisha Holland of New York University, who conducted the research while at Boston College under senior researcher Elizabeth Kensinger. “Having a better understanding of how healthy individuals effectively regulate the emotions associated with autobiographical memories may ultimately have important clinical implications,” Holland says.

Because it takes a person time to recall an autobiographical memory, the researchers were able to specifically investigate different points in time during which neural processes contribute to emotional regulation of the memories. They examined neural activity with an fMRI scan during three phases: as participants viewed a reappraisal instruction; as they searched for the memory; and as they elaborated on the details of the memory. Participants could choose which negative events to recall, ranging from romantic break-ups and poor performance on an exam or paper, to the loss of a pet or an illness – or in some cases, neutral (neither negative nor positive) events for the control.

The reappraisal instruction was to either increase, decrease, or maintain emotions associated with the event. For example, if the negative event were about a friend forgetting a participant’s birthday, he or she might decrease the emotional reaction to that memory by focusing on the great time spent celebrating the birthday. To increase the emotional reaction to that event, the participant might focus how sad he or she felt upon realizing that the friend forgot.

Holland and Kensinger found a distinct pattern of neural activity for increasing emotion versus decreasing emotion based on the time phase of the scan. Both increasing and decreasing emotion engaged brain activity in regions associated with cognitive control (e.g., dorsal and ventral lateral prefrontal cortex), emotion generation and processing (e.g., amygdala, insula), and visual imagery (e.g., precuneus). However, the timing was different: the decrease in emotions activated these brain regions as participants searched for and recalled events, while the increase in emotions did so during the instruction and memory elaboration phases.

One unexpected outcome of the study was that participants still rated the same increase or decrease in their emotions associated with the memory 30 minutes after the scanning. “We weren’t sure how durable the changes in intensity would be and were excited to see that they were sustained over at least a short delay, as this is a promising area for future research,” Holland says. Indeed, Holland is continuing to investigate how long the effects of the cognitive reappraisal might last.

In general, “the research offers some preliminary evidence that changing the way we think about past negative events can help reduce or enhance the emotional intensity we experience during recall, depending on our goals,” Holland says. If researchers were able to pinpoint which types of regulation strategies lead to the most effective and long-lasting weakening of negative emotions for healthy individuals, perhaps it would be possible to train depressed individuals, or those suffering from PTSD, to use similar strategies when recalling negative experiences, she says.

The paper, “The Neural Correlates of Cognitive Reappraisal during Emotional Autobiographical Memory Recall” by Alisha C. Holland and Elizabeth A. Kensinger, appeared in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, online August 20, 2012.

For more information, contact: Lisa M.P. Munoz, CNS Public Information Officer, cns.publicaffairs@gmail.com

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