When you think of a hangover, a few things might come to mind: dire physical pain, inability to remember things, like how much you drank or how many people you kissed—and, of course, regret.
While hangovers are often associated with booze, sometimes they’re not alcohol-related at all, as researchers at New York University found out. You know how having a bad fight with a significant other or family member feels so draining, you might as well have thrown back six tequila shots? That’s what they dubbed an “emotional hangover.”
The study confirmed that emotional experiences can have a long-term effect on the brain and re-shape how we remember future experiences. But emotional hangovers are different from their alcohol-induced counterparts in one crucial way: During the aftermath of an emotional event, we can actually remember more. That’s because the amygdala, hippocampus and medial temporal lobe (all parts of the brain linked to memory) are stimulated for longer than we thought.
“‘Emotion’ is a state of mind,” study author Lila Davachi said in a news release. “These findings make clear that our cognition is highly influenced by preceding experiences and, specifically, that emotional brain states can persist for long periods of time.”
Participants in Davachi’s study viewed two sets of images spaced 10 to 30 minutes apart. The first was a standard set of images used in studies to elicit emotional reactions. The second set consisted of neutral, non-emotional images. Some participants viewed the emotional images first, while the other group viewed the non-emotional ones first.
During this time, researchers measured participants’ arousal levels via skin conductance and looking at brain function through an fMRI. After six hours, participants took memory tests to determine how many images they could recall.
The results concluded that people who viewed the emotional images first were better at recalling the non-emotional images than the group of people who viewed the non-emotional pictures first—meaning events that happen after an emotional experience are more likely to be remembered. “We see that memory for non-emotional experiences is better if they are encountered after an emotional event,” said Davachi.
These results reflected activity happening in the participants’ brains. Regions activated from the emotional images were still alert 20–30 minutes later when participants viewed the second set of images. This implies the brain stays active after an emotional occurrence, forming subsequent memories that are more crisp. The study notes: “Neural measures of an emotional experience can persist in time and bias how new, unrelated information is encoded and recollected.”
Davachi hopes the study findings will help shape how we “see the world.” It’s fascinating that these “emotional hangovers” allow our brains to encode new, vivid memories that last.