CHICAGO, ILLINOIS — When negative memories intrude, focusing on the contextual details of the incident rather than the emotional fallout could help minimize cognitive disruption and redirect the brain’s resources to the task at hand, suggests a study by psychologists at the University of Illinois (UI).
The researchers examined how brain activity and performance on a memory task changed when the participants were told to focus on the emotional or contextual aspects of triggered memories.
Thirty-three study participants completed detailed, lengthy surveys asking about a variety of events in their lives. One to two weeks later, participants performed cognitive memory tasks during a functional MRI (fMRI) scan. The researchers chose descriptions of negative events that the participants had written about, from sporting defeats to personal losses, and used them to trigger those memories during the tasks.
For half of the triggered memories, the participants were instructed to focus on the emotional aspects of their memories; for the other half, the participants were instructed to shift their focus away from the emotion and toward the contextual details of the memory, such as where the incident happened, who they were with, what they were wearing and other details.
“When subjects focused on the emotional aspect of their memories, how they felt, including the physical sensations, their cognitive performance was lower relative to their control tasks,” said Alexandru Iordan, the first author of the study. “But when they were focusing on the non-emotional, contextual aspects, then their working memory performance was not impacted. They had better task performance and less negative effects.”
The fMRI also found changes in brain activity. When participants focused on emotion, there was increased activity in regions of the brain involving emotional processing, but reduced activity in regions involved in executive function, such as reasoning and memory. However, when the participants focused on contextual details of their memories, there was a dampening in the regions involved in distraction and emotional processing and an increase in both activity and communication among regions associated with executive function and attention.
“When regions in the brain that are involved in processing emotion are stimulated, it takes resources away from regions that are helping you stay focused on the task at hand,” said study leader Florin Dolcos, a professor of psychology at UI. “With this shift in focus from emotion to context, you’re putting resources back into the regions that are processing the task.”
The researchers say the technique of focusing on context could help those who struggle with intrusive or distracting emotional memories to have a quick response ready so that when those memories are triggered, they can focus on the task at hand and then later process the memories more deeply with other techniques, such as cognitive reappraisal.
“This is important because another emotional strategy that people employ against such memories is suppression, which means bottling up your emotions. Suppression is actually associated with such clinical conditions as anxiety and depression, and it is not healthy,” Florin Dolcos said. “Instead of suppressing or stifling those emotional memories, we simply shift the focus and bring to life some other aspects of the same memory. That leads to a reduction in how much those memories interfere with whatever we’re doing.”
The researchers are working with subjects with depression and Post-Traumatic stress Disorder (PTSD) to evaluate the effectiveness of their technique over time.
The study has been published in the journal Cerebral Corte