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Why our brains are so selective

Why our brains are so selective

While many of us feel like we're stuck in some kind of Groundhog Day of getting up, going to work and coming home, the reality is a lot happens to us every day. From choosing what to eat at meal times to gossiping with work colleagues or looking around shops at lunchtime, we are exposed to millions of stimuli every day. So how do we decide what to remember and what's not important? That's the question researchers in New York have been considering, and they've found emotions are as important as events in terms of memory - with the body using feelings to strengthen weaker memories.

To test the theory, a study looked at how people remember trauma and focused on the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City. In the past it's been presumed we have clearer memories of things like this because of their shocking nature, but it's actually down to how emotion affects the way the brain works. The parts which are involved with emotional processing and encoding new experiences are influenced when we have a strong feeling, plus it makes the memory stronger over time.

This works on both positive and negative events, so you're as likely to vividly recall a time when you were shocked and excited as you are feeling embarrassed or humiliated.

In turn, this means strong emotion will help you remember small details which probably aren't that important - for example what your friend was wearing when she told you she was getting married. The emotional context of the event helps your body recall these minutiae. In turn, this can mean boring information is more readily absorbed if a feeling is linked to it.

"In some of our earlier studies, we found that people selectively remember neutral pictures if the pictures had been associated with an electrical shock the previous day, even when the volunteers were unaware that we would later test their memory," researchers Dr. Dunsmoor and Dr. Murty explained on

"We have also shown that people remember neutral pictures if they are warned that if they forget them, they will receive a shock the next day."

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