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Fear & the Brain

Fear & Memory

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We often think of memories in one way – as our past experiences or impressions, facts or details, which we can recall at will. But neuroscientists have found that we actually have several different types of memory, each of which traces a separate neural pathway. Click here to learn about a famous experiment, which supports this theory.

Dr. Liz Phelps is the director of a lab at New York University, which is working to discover how these neural systems work. Researchers there use cognitive neuroscience to investigate the fascinating relationship between emotion and memory.

In this short video, Dr. Phelps describes two different types of memory.

Vivid Emotional Memories

It's clear that memory is far from straightforward. For example, rather than one or the other, the same brain can store strengthened or weakened memories of events, depending on the circumstances.

Scientists believe stress hormones released by the fear system strengthen memory pathways in our brains, allowing us to easily recall memories of emotional experiences. They call these “flashbulb memories.”

If an emotional event becomes too traumatic, however, it can negatively affect memory. Researchers have also found that even though people report vivid recollections related to flashbulb memories, they often swear by details that are in fact erroneous.

The fact that most Baby Boomers easily recall what they were doing when they learned that John F. Kennedy had been shot is a clear example of flashbulb memories at work. Do you have any flashbulb memories?