Emotional experiences in particular stick in people's memories. As researchers find out, a lesser-explored brain area plays an important role: the cerebellum. It helps us to remember particularly well - which also has its downsides.
When it comes to the human brain, the neocortex has long been the focus of attention. Because this part of the cerebrum is responsible for thinking and speaking. The role of the cerebellum, on the other hand, is less well understood. It has four times as many nerve cells as the neocortex. Until now, it was known that the cerebellum is responsible for learning complex movement sequences, such as those required when building tools. But researchers at the University of Basel have now discovered that the cerebellum also plays an important role in remembering emotional experiences.
Both positive and negative emotional experiences are stored particularly well in the memory. This phenomenon is essential for survival because, for example, we have to remember dangerous situations in order to avoid them in the future. Previous studies have shown that a brain structure called the amygdala, which is important for processing emotions, plays a central role in this phenomenon. Feelings activate the amygdala, which in turn facilitates the storage of information in different areas of the cerebrum.
The result was that the study participants remembered both positive and negative images much better than neutral images in a later memory test. Improved storage of emotional images was associated with increased brain activity in familiar areas of the cerebrum. In addition, the research team observed strong activation in the cerebellum.
The researchers were also able to show that the cerebellum communicates more intensively with various areas of the cerebrum during the improved storage of emotional images. It receives information from a brain region that is important for the perception and evaluation of feelings, the so-called cingulate gyrus. The cerebellum also sends signals to various brain regions, including the amygdala and hippocampus. The latter plays a central role in memory storage.
"The present results indicate that the cerebellum is an integral part of a network that is responsible for the improved storage of emotional information," says de Quervain. Although an improved memory for emotional experiences is a vital mechanism, it also has its downsides: In the case of very negative experiences, it can promote recurrent anxiety. Therefore, the findings that have now been published could also be of importance for the understanding of psychiatric clinical pictures such as post-traumatic stress disorder.