Anatomy of pain and rememberance

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill .
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.

Psalm 137, v. 5,6

Customers tend to remember painful or dissatisfactory experiences with products and services, especially those that result in a feeling of having survived a 'calamity'. Take for example a harrowing plane ride, or an exploding battery, which may have resulted in physical injuries. Among dissatisfied customers, some tend to keep the memories longer than others. Researchers have now found a reason why.

Rare events that might have an impact on an individual's survival or reproduction should have a special fast lane into the memory bank—and they do. It is called the α2b-adrenoceptor, and it is found in the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in processing strong emotions such as fear. The role of the α2b-adrenoceptor is to promote memory formation—but only if it is stimulated by adrenaline. Since emotionally charged events are often accompanied by adrenaline secretion, the α2b-adrenoceptor acts as a gatekeeper that decides what will be remembered and what discarded.

However, the gene that encodes this receptor comes in two varieties. That led Dominique de Quervain, of the University of Zurich, to wonder if people with one variant would have better emotional memories than those with the other. The short answer, just published in Nature Neuroscience, is that they do. Moreover, since the frequencies of the two variants are different in different groups of people, whole populations may have different mixtures of emotional memory. The reason Dr de Quervain suspected the variants might work differently is that the rarer one looks like the commoner one when the latter has a memory-enhancing drug called yohimbine attached to it. His prediction, therefore, was that better emotional memory would be associated with the rarer version.


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