Imagine you’re a college student who just failed an exam, a lawyer who recently lost a case, or a politician whose bid for re-election fell short. Or maybe you just ended a long-term relationship and are sorting out what went wrong.
For each of these folks, recalling such painful events—even years later—can bring back negative emotions that produce significant stress, impacting how they might approach similar experiences in the future. How does one cope with these emotions and stress, and minimize their effect on one’s daily life?
“We all have these experiences stored in our memory,” says Professor Mauricio Delgado, of Rutgers University–Newark’s Department of Psychology, who studies the relationship between emotion and cognition in the human brain, and how they affect learning and decision making. “These experiences can impact our growth, but perhaps we can use strategies to change the feelings associated with negative memories like these and, by doing so, enable people to better cope with challenges that lie ahead.”
That’s the basis of Delgado’s latest research, for which he recently received a 3-year $300K grant from the McKnight Endowment for Neuroscience.
The grant is part of the McKnight Foundation’s Memory and Cognitive Disorders Awards, which supports U.S. researchers by encouraging collaboration between basic and clinical neuroscience to translate laboratory discoveries into therapies to improve human health.
His proposal was one of only four projects to receive the honor, chosen from a field of 97 applicants.
“I am honored and grateful to the McKnight Foundation for the opportunity to continue this research, and happy for the recognition of the work we have done in the lab, which formed the foundation of the proposal they chose to fund,” says Delgado.
Learning how to control our emotional responses promotes well-being: It can help us make better decisions, cope with environmental and social demands, and actively focus on our goals.
He got the project idea a few years ago while visiting his undergraduate alma mater to give a talk. Walking around campus prior to the event, Delgado saw his old dorm and was hit by a flurry of positive memories from that period in his life, which put him in a great mood and helped him deliver his address.
That got Delgado interested in the actual neural systems involved in positive memory recall and how they help regulate our emotions.
Research in his lab by one of his graduate students, Meg Speer, has shown that positive memories function like rewards—similar to money or a favorite food, only more abstract—in that similar neural systems are involved in processing each. Delgado and Speer also found that positive feelings elicited by recalling a positive memory can dampen the physiological response to stress.
From there, it was a short leap to exploring how finding the “silver lining” of a negative memory—what he calls “positive meaning finding”—can change the emotions associated with it.
Take the aforementioned example of the exam, says Delgado. Looking on the “bright side” of that negative experience (e.g., I learned better study skills after I failed that exam) in theory should allow that memory to be updated as less negative the next time it is recalled, lessening the stress.
By changing the negative feelings associated with that memory, the student opens up avenues for personal development that might otherwise be closed. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Delgado hopes to understand the neural mechanisms that underlie the successful use of this strategy.
The therapeutic potential for such strategies—and understanding the underlying brain activity—are great, he says.
“Memories can be cued by many things in the environment and our daily lives, and being reminded of something that elicits negative emotions can be disruptive at best, and possibly self-defeating,” says Delgado. “Learning how to control our emotional responses promotes well-being: It can help us make better decisions, cope with environmental and social demands, and actively focus on our goals.”
He admits that his theory has limitations, in that it may not be effective for every type of memory or every individual. But it also has great promise, he says.
Delgado looks forward to testing his theory, and to interacting with the interdisciplinary network of scientists involved with the McKnight Foundation, who he says will bring a different perspective to his research and help it grow in a variety of ways.
“Those interactions and feedback should be valuable,” he says. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue this important work.”
About the Award:
The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience is an independent organization funded by The McKnight Foundation of Minneapolis, Minn. The Foundation’s Memory and Cognitive Disorders Awards are inspired by the interests of William L. McKnight (1887–1978), one of the early leaders of the 3M Company, who founded Foundation in 1953 to support, among other things, research on diseases affecting memory. His daughter, Virginia McKnight Binger, and The McKnight Foundation board established the McKnight neuroscience program in his honor in 1977.