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Q&A: A Few Minutes With Elizabeth Kensinger

Associate Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Kensinger

By Melissa Beecher | Chronicle Staff

Published: Nov. 17, 2011

Associate Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Kensinger, director of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, has been lauded as a rising star in her field. As a graduate student, she began her pioneering work on how age and emotions influence the formation and retrieval of memories, and she has since conducted research supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health and now, Boston College. Kensinger recently spoke with Melissa Beecher of the Chronicle about her research and the CAN Lab.

There are so many interesting things on the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory website, such as your work with memory in literature and film. Do people understand the concepts of memory better when speaking in terms of film or literature?

Memory is such a prominent theme in literature and film, and even in films and novels that seem to have no more than a grain of truth to them, some pieces often are connected to the science of memory.   For instance, it might seem hard to believe that there is any science behind the fiction of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but in fact there is fascinating research to suggest that the erasure or distortion of select memories may be possible.  And the way that Joel is able to “run” from one memory to the next is a great metaphor for how our retrieval process works; we think of one event, which leads us to another, and another.

Another example is how memory loss is represented in “50 First Dates.”  In this film, Drew Barrymore’s character loses memory of her waking day as soon as she falls asleep.  There certainly is more fiction than science to the film; however, scientific research does suggest that we need sleep to optimally stabilize memories from our waking day, so could a sleep disorder lead someone’s memories from the waking day to be erased rather than stabilized during sleep?  

Okay, a very "101" question here: How is memory affected by emotion?

The “101” answer is that emotion enhances our memory, enabling us to remember experiences vividly and for longer durations of time.  But the work in my laboratory has shown that the answer is more complicated and that the effect of emotion on memory depends on at least two things: the types of details a person is asked to remember, and whether the experienced emotion is pleasant or unpleasant in nature.

In terms of the details assessed, research in collaboration with Jill Waring and Katherine Mickley Steinmetz revealed that when people view something negative like a car crash, their memory is very good for the details of the crash itself but is very poor for the other information within the scene, such as the buildings on the street.  What gets recorded in long-term memory seems to be just the most emotionally pertinent information.  Our research also has revealed that this “zoomed in” memory can occur regardless of whether there is something very negative (someone pointing a gun) or something very positive (someone presenting a check for a million dollars).

Memory does not operate in exactly the same way for negative and positive events, however. When we look at what people remember about, for example, seeing a car crash or seeing a million dollar check, we find that people remember the visual details of the negative items far better than the details of the positive items.  A study conducted by graduate student Alisha Holland confirmed that these differences extend beyond the laboratory to real-life experiences: Individuals who felt negative about the outcome of the 2008 presidential election remembered more of its details months later than individuals who felt positive about the outcome.  Negative emotion seems to encourage the retention of very precise details, whereas positive emotion seems to encourage the retention of more general themes.

Heading into an emotionally charged time of year – the holidays — what are some practical things that people can do to improve our memories?  

Moments that are emotionally charged and personally relevant are likely to be remembered; so even if all the minutiae of a holiday celebration aren’t recorded, many of the who-what-where details are likely to become part of our memory stores.  In fact, one of the best things we can do to remember an event is to think about the deeper significance of the event and to consider why it is important.  This strategy works for older adults as well as for young adults.  

In terms of the effects of age on memory, I want to mention two things.  The first is that not all age-related changes in memory are bad, or at least they aren’t bad in all circumstances.  For instance, although older adults do less well than young adults at remembering precise details, older adults do just as well, and sometimes better, than young adults at picking out the general theme or emotional tone of information.  This might seem like a deficit if trying to remember the precise measurements in a recipe, but in many other situations it is beneficial to remember the big picture without getting bogged down in the details. The second is that research conducted by graduate student Brendan Murray has revealed that, at least in some circumstances, older adults can be just as good as young adults at controlling their memory; that is, older adults can effectively put memories out of mind when it is beneficial to do so.  

So if the strongest memory attached with Aunt Rita is that she broke a precious vase at the last family gathering, older adults, just like young adults, can exert control over their memories to decrease the likelihood that the broken vase is the first memory that comes to mind when Aunt Rita arrives for this year’s holiday dinner.

Tell me a little more about the work of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory.

In addition to the research I’ve already described, another avenue of work that I am enthused about is examining the connections between sleep, memory, and emotion. In addition to being a topic of scientific importance, it is of high relevance to the average, sleep-deprived undergraduate! Losing sleep, even just shaving off a few hours of sleep each night, can be detrimental to everything from emotion regulation to memory performance.  This line of research, led by graduate student Kelly Bennion, is trying to understand why sleep has these effects on emotion and memory.  It’s very exciting that we are able to have a sleep lab in McGuinn Hall, monitoring participants’ sleep overnight and looking at how the quantity and quality of their sleep corresponds with their ability to retain information from their waking day.

What areas of memory are you interested in studying in the future?

There is still so much that we do not understand about how we remember emotional experiences.  I anticipate that solving that mystery will keep me busy for quite some time!  But I do feel that we have made great strides in understanding how people initially encode (learn) emotional information, so my students and I are shifting more of our focus toward understanding what happens after that initial learning experience.  How does emotion influence the processes that unfold over the next minutes, hours, days, and years?