Emotions persist after memories fade

By Paula E. Hartman-Stein, Ph.D.

Telling someone to "forget about it" as Mafia- type characters have done in the movies will not work when it comes to our emotional memories, even for individuals with significant memory impairment.

A study published in mid April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that emotional experiences are processed in the brain independent from memory.

Patients with severe amnesia continued to experience sadness or happiness after watching emotionally charged film clips with the feelings persisting after they had little to no recall of the content, according to a study from the University of Iowa College of Medicine.

Such findings have implications for individuals with memory disorders from conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or strokes, as events that have been forgotten could continue to impact a patient’s emotional well-being.

Researchers investigated how memory impacts emotion by studying a rare group of five patients with bilateral damage to the brain’s hippocampus. The individuals with severe amnesia, ranging in age from 25 to 59, watched a series of film clips with themes of loss and death to induce sadness and a series of highly amusing clips to induce happiness.

Five to 10 minutes after viewing the films in each series researchers tested their free recall, verbal recognition and picture recognition of the content of the movies. Following the memory test, researchers measured the patients’ current emotional states compared to their moods before the film, immediately after viewing the clips, and 20 to 30 minutes following viewing of the film excerpts. The experimenters administered the same procedure to a group of normal individuals for comparison.

Memory tests revealed the brain-damaged individuals retained little or no factual memory for the content of the sad or happy film clips yet each person reported increased levels of emotion induced by the films that persisted at higher levels of intensity and for a longer time period compared to the control group.

According to authors Feinstein, Duff and Tranel, the brain is organized so that an emotion can persist without any explicit memory for its actual cause.

Feinstein said in a news release, "Events that have long been forgotten could continue to induce suffering or well-being. What this research suggests is that we need to start setting scientifically informed standards of care for patients with memory disorder."

David Glenwick, Ph.D., of Fordham University, said, "Findings like these appear to provide justification for providing psychological services to those with dementia – services which are sometimes challenged by third party payers on the basis of whether the patients can benefit from therapy."

According to Cameron Camp, Ph.D., of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care, the results obtained in this study are not at all surprising. "Describe these results to nursing assistants in long-term care facilities and you are likely to get a ‘what’s so new about that?’ response. It is the translation of these findings into practical usage and treatment implementation that has lagged and still does to a very large extent."

He said that Montessori-based programs for dementia patients are examples of effective non-pharmacological treatment interventions for persons with dementia that stem from understanding the independence of declarative memory from emotion.

Paula E. Hartman-Stein, Ph.D., is a psychologist in independent practice at the Center for Healthy Aging in Kent, Ohio. She was recently named the 2010 Outstanding Gerontology practitioner of the year by the Ohio Association of Gerontology and Education. She may be reached at cha@en.com.

National Psychologist, Vol. 19, No. 3, pp 3, 6.