The blessing of a senior memory

January 7, 2009

If you tend to see the past as having hotter summers, more fun and fewer problems then that’s a benefit of ageing. At least it is according to Neuroscientists from Duke University Medical Center in the USA as they have reported in the online issue of ‘Psychological Science’. They have discovered activity in the brain that causes us to remember fewer of life’s negative events than younger people – presumably because they are nearer in time to the bad events.

It seems that as our brains get older then they allow negative memories to fade away. It’s because older people use their brains differently than younger people when it comes to storing memories, particularly those associated with negative emotions. The study focused on two groups; over 70′s and under 25′s who were shown a series of 30 photographs while their brains were imaged in a functional MRI (fMRI) machine. The pictures varied from neutral to having very strong negative images such as attacking snakes, mutilated bodies and acts of violence. While in the fMRI machine, the subjects looked at the photos and ranked them on a pleasantness scale.

Later, they were then asked to recall the pictures while being scanned again and the results found that the older adults had less connectivity between areas of the brain that generate emotions and those of memory and learning, but had stronger connections with the frontal cortex, the higher thinking area of the brain that controls these lower-order parts of the brain.

In contrast, the young adults used more of the brain regions typically involved in emotion and recalling memories. This meant that they were able to recall more of the negative photos and that because the older adults were using more thinking than feeling, that they didn’t recall the more emotive, negative, pictures nearly so well.

The conclusion was that although the emotional centres of the older people were just as active as those of younger subjects, their brain connections were different. For older subjects the benefit is that they had over their lifetime learned to be less affected by negative information in order to maintain their well being and emotional state. So the summers may not have been hotter, but how nice to remember them that way and shut out all those days spent huddling under an umbrella on the sands.


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