What makes for a long-lasting memory? Research has shown that emotional or important events take root deeply, whereas neutral or mundane happenings create weak impressions that easily fade. But what about an experience that initially seemed forgettable but was later shown to be important? Animal research suggested that these types of older memories could be strengthened, but scientists had not been able to replicate this finding in humans—until now. New evidence suggests that our initially weak memories are maintained by the brain for a period, during which they can be enhanced.
In the recent study published in Nature, psychologists at New York University showed 119 participants a series of images of tools and animals. A few minutes later the subjects saw a new set of images, with an electric shock paired with either the tools or the animals, to increase the salience of just one of those categories. The participants' memories for both sets of images were then tested either immediately, six hours later or the next day. Participants remembered images from the first neutral series better if they belonged to the same category (tool or animal) that was later paired with the shock.
The findings suggest that even if an event does not seem meaningful when it occurs, a later cue that the experience was important can enhance the old memory. Although research has not yet demonstrated this effect outside the laboratory, the scientists speculate it happens often in daily life. For example, imagine you meet several new people at a networking event. During a job interview days later, you discover that one of those acquaintances is on the hiring committee, and suddenly the details of your conversation at the networking event become vivid and memorable—whereas the conversations you had with others at the event fade with time.
Many questions remain, including how long after a memory is born it is susceptible to strengthening and what types of feedback will trigger the changes. First author Joseph Dunsmoor, a research psychologist at N.Y.U., expects that positive or rewarding outcomes, rather than shocks, will also do the trick.