MADISON -- Psychologists have long known that memories of disturbing emotional events - such as an act of violence or the unexpected death of a loved one - are more vivid and deeply imprinted in the brain than mundane recollections of everyday matters.
Probing deeper into how such memories form, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found that the mere anticipation of a fearful situation can fire up two memory-forming regions of the brain - even before the event has occurred.
That means the simple act of anticipation may play a surprisingly important role in how fresh the memory of a tough experience remains.
The findings of the brain-imaging study, which appear in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, have important implications for the treatment of psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social anxiety, which are often characterized by flashbacks and intrusive memories of upsetting events.
"The main motivation for this study was a clinical one, in terms of understanding and applying knowledge about memory so that we can better inform the treatment of disorders that have a large memory component, like PTSD," says lead author Kristen Mackiewicz, a graduate student at the University of Colorado who worked on the anticipation study while a student at UW-Madison.
The project also builds on a relatively new body of work on the role of anticipation in emotion and clinical disorders, says senior author Jack Nitschke, a UW-Madison assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology.
"Our study illustrates how the power of expectancy can extend to memory formation as well," says Nitschke, also an associate of UW-Madison's Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior. "Just the expectation of seeing something bad can enhance the memory of it after it happens."