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Give the gift of memories this Holiday Season

by Carolyn Lacey , 23 Dec 2016.

Take a moment to think back to your favorite holiday gathering. The one where Grannie got drunk after a glass of champagne and belted out Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” in the middle of the family party, or, sitting in your cozy living room while a blanket of snow covers the ground outside playing yet another round of Monopoly. Maybe just remember the smell of your traditional meal being cooked. How does it make you feel?

Chances are remembering these “autobiographical” events and reminiscing is making you feel more positive. Studies have demonstrated that remembering the good times does indeed make us feel good.

Pain Image

Neuroscience is starting to unravel the importance of these so-called autobiographical memories for long-term emotional well-being and resilience to stress. These autobiographical memories have the added advantage of helping us rekindle the positive emotions that came with them. By using brain scans in healthy human subjects, researchers from the Delgado lab in Rutgers University were able to pinpoint the reliving of happy memories to parts of the brain that are important for reward (in this study the prefrontal cortex and striatum). This suggests that these memories of positive events are intrinsically valuable to us- so valuable that the researchers found that participants in a study were more likely to choose to reminisce happy occasions, like a family holiday, over accepting more tangible rewards like cash or treats.

Creating memories with loved ones is wired into our brain reward circuits- and the nostalgia associated with remembering these occasions over and over again is not only beneficial for real-time mood but is also important for promoting emotional regulation and resilience against stress. You’ve probably heard the elderly recount their favorite good old day tales over and over again- and this is a good thing because the act of reminiscing a positive autobiographical event repeatedly strengthens those memories and makes them more accessible in times of need- like dealing with life stressors.

Remembering happy memories may be a proactive way to limit our susceptibility to mental health disorders such as depression. Depression sufferers find reminiscing positive past experiences less rewarding and find them harder to access. Furthermore, individuals with more depressive symptoms were less likely to give up cash to relive positive memories.

The researchers sum it up nicely: “savoring positive events from our past may be an adaptive tool for combatting life’s trouble”. Building up our reservoir of happy memories, and recalling them frequently, may not only enable us to transiently elevate our mood, but also reduce long-term risk of mental health disorders. So, this holiday season choose to make time to make happy memories, or listen to some music that reminds you of the good old days, or find a prominent location for something that makes you remember something good- it may help you handle the stress of the year to come.


To view the original paper discussed in this blog, "Savoring the Past: Positive Memories Evoke Value Representations in the Striatum" please click here


The Blog was written by Carolyn Lacey, Scientific Outreach Manager at Neurexpert. To learn more about Carolyn and Neurexpert, please click here.


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