The amygdala and hippocampal complex, two medial temporal lobe structures, are linked to two independent memory systems, each with unique characteristic functions. In emotional situations, these two systems interact in subtle but important ways. Specifically, the amygdala can modulate both the encoding and the storage of hippocampal-dependent memories. The hippocampal complex, by forming episodic representations of the emotional significance and interpretation of events, can influence the amygdala response when emotional stimuli are encountered. Although these are independent memory systems, they act in concert when emotion meets memory.
Typically the term “memory” refers to the ability to consciously remember past experiences or previously learned information. This kind of memory is considered to be dependent upon the hippocampal system. However, our emotional state seems to considerably affect the way in which we retain information and the accuracy with which the retention occurs. The amygdala is the most notably involved brain structure in emotional responses and the formation of emotional memories. In this review we describe a system, composed of the amygdala and the hippocampus, that acts synergistically to form long-term memories of significantly emotional events. These brain structures are activated following an emotional event and cross-talk with each other in the process of consolidation. This dual activation of the amygdala and the hippocampus and the dynamics between them may be what gives emotionally based memories their uniqueness.
Four experiments are reported which examined memory capacity and retrieval speed for pictures and for words. Single-trial learning tasks were employed throughout, with memory performance assessed by forced-choice recognition, recall measures or choice reaction-time tasks. The main experimental findings were: (I) memory capacity, as a function of the amount of material presented, follows a general power law with a characteristic exponent for each task; (2) pictorial material obeys this power law and shows an overall superiority to verbal material. The capacity of recognition memory for pictures is almost limitless, when measured under appropriate conditions; (3) when the recognition task is made harder by using more alternatives, memory capacity stays constant and the superiority of pictures is maintained; (4) picture memory also exceeds verbal memory in terms of verbal recall; comparable recognition/recall ratios are obtained for pictures, words and nonsense syllables; (5) verbal memory shows a higher retrieval speed than picture memory, as inferred from reaction-time measures. Both types of material obey a power law, when reaction-time is measured for various sizes of learning set, and both show very rapid rates of memory search.
From a consideration of the experimental results and other data it is concluded that the superiority of the pictorial mode in recognition and free recall learning tasks is well established and cannot be attributed to methodological artifact.
Acquisition and extinction of fear responses conditioned to a visual stimulus were examined in rats with ablations of visual cortex. Visual cortex lesions did not interfere with acquisition, indicating that visual fear conditioning, like auditory fear conditioning, is mediated by sub-cortical, probably thalamo-amygdala, sensory pathways. In contrast to acquisition, extinction was greatly prolonged, if not prevented, by cortical ablation. This resistance to extinction of sub cortical emotional memories may explain certain aspects of emotional memory in man.
Traditional theories of forgetting are wedded to the notion that cue-overload interference procedures (often involving the A-B, A-C list-learning paradigm) capture the most important elements of forgetting in everyday life. However, findings from a century of work in psychology, psychopharmacology, and neuroscience converge on the notion that such procedures may pertain mainly to forgetting in the laboratory and that everyday forgetting is attributable to an altogether different form of interference. According to this idea, recently formed memories that have not yet had a chance to consolidate are vulnerable to the interfering force of mental activity and memory formation (even if the interfering activity is not similar to the previously learned material). This account helps to explain why sleep, alcohol, and benzodiazepines all improve memory for a recently learned list, and it is consistent with recent work on the variables that affect the induction and maintenance of long-term potentiation in the hippocampus.
Frank Longo, MD, PhD, George and Lucy Becker Professor, discusses the intricacy human mind and how different types of memory and memory loss function.
Stanford Mini Med School is a series arranged and directed by Stanford’s School of Medicine, and presented by the Stanford Continuing Studies program.
Jeanette Norden, Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, Emerita, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, explores how the brain learns and remembers. This video focuses on a discussion of how the brain is organized in general.
These lectures will provide the foundation
information necessary to the understanding
of the lectures which will follow. A special
emphasis will be given to systems in the brain
that underlie learning and memory, attention
and awareness. These introductory lectures
will be followed by a lecture on how different
areas of the brain encode different, specific
types of information—from the phone number
we need only remember for a few minutes or
less to the childhood memories we retain for
a lifetime. We will also address the “mistakes
of memory” which give insight as to how the
brain actually encodes our life experiences.
The last group of lectures in this series will
focus on the many clinical conditions that can
affect different types of learning and memory.
Lastly, we will focus our discussion on the
accumulating evidence that aging need not be
associated with significant memory loss. We
will discuss advancements in neuroscience that
indicate ways to keep your brain healthy as
To learn more about Vanderbilt, visit http://www.vanderbilt.edu.