Do you remember what you were doing on your 18th birthday?
Mine was a Friday and after college my boyfriend drove us, along with a couple of friends, to Reading town Centre. It was a chilly January evening as we walked to the Purple Turtle, a characterful (if a touch grimy) cocktail bar a little way off the high street. There, proudly wearing my ‘18 today’ badge, I enjoyed my new-found ability to buy alcohol legally by working my way through their extensive cocktail menu. My memories of this evening (well, the early parts of it at least!) are fairly clear. I even remember queuing for the toilet, where a group of girls asked me if it was really my birthday.
But if you picked another Friday from that year, and asked me what I did, I wouldn’t have a clue. On a superficial level, it seems obvious that momentous occasions are stored differently, so can be recalled much more easily than other, more humdrum days.
But how is this difference coded in our brains?
What is actually going on in my neurons and synapses when I recall that evening that brings the sticky floors and graffiti-covered walls to mind so readily?
One reason it stands out so much is probably because it was a very emotional day. The happiness I felt when my friends presented me with the most beautiful pair of shoes I had ever seen, which they had clubbed together to buy me. The nervous excitement of using my ID for the first time. The anticipation of my party to come that weekend. All these would have been impacting my brain, and changing the way the memories were stored.
Emotion and memories are inextricably intertwined.
The amygdala (part of the brain’s limbic system, which processes emotions) is found right next to the hippocampus (which is vital for learning), and for good reason. We have evolved to remember things that might be useful for our survival, so our brain is more likely to store information about something that causes a large emotional response, whether that is positive or negative.
When emotions are running high, our bodies release a whole host of chemicals, including adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. It seems to be adrenaline that is responsible for the memory boost, as this chemical increases activity levels in the amygdala and hippocampus.
Studies have found that blocking adrenaline receptors can reduce the emotional enhancement of memories and that increasing the amount of adrenaline released (with a drug or by asking volunteers to stick their hand in iced water) increases it. This is why we remember emotional events, whether negative like the death of a loved one or positive such as a wedding, more vividly than a normal day. And this is one of the reasons I remember my 18th birthday so well- it was a happy and exciting occasion, so my brain chemicals ensured I stored it for the future.
We hope you enjoyed this excerpt from the chapter on learning and memory in Braintastic! Founder Ginny's new book, OVERLOADED: How Every Aspect of your Life is Affected by your Brain Chemicals. Each chapter of the book explores the neuroscience of a different area of life, from hunger to decision making, sleep to love. If you’d like to find out more about the book, just head to: https://www.ginnysmithscience.com/overloaded
And don’t forget, we have a free lesson plan all about learning and memory in the brain, aimed at KS3 & 4 on our freebies page. We also offer a show on the topic, so do get in touch if you are interested in having one of the Braintastic! Team come to your school (in person or virtually) to help your students get the best out of their brains. Our shows are designed to give students a fun, memorable experience, hopefully priming their brains to remember our content better!