Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Emotions Influence Memory, Learning

Emotion, the basis for much of human expression, while yet still poorly understood, exerts definite influences on parts of the brain that control attention, perception and learning, a new report released recently suggests.

The report, which appears in the journal Science, traces the biological bases of emotions in findings that could have implications for treating mood and psychiatric disorders. It also could open windows to better understanding of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and dementia.

Researcher R J Dolan of the Institute of Neurology in London reviewed current medical literature about the brain and emotion and drew some key conclusions. For example, the "emotional machinery," as Dolan describes it, appears to connect directly to parts of the brain responsible for attention and absorbing new information. The same machinery also appears to be involved in forming memories and making decisions.

According to Dr Dolan, "The best studied examples of emotion influencing other brain regions are its effects on memory. This is mediated by influences on the hippocampus and early sensory processing regions. I suspect that there are few, if any, regions of the brain where the influence of emotion is not evident."

Another critical region of the brain, Dolan explains in his report, is the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure located within the limbic system. The amygdala is involved in registering emotion, particularly in response to danger. However, its connections to the visual cortex, which is found towards the back of the brain, and the hippocampus, which is behind and below the frontal lobes, permit the amygdala to process perception and memory.

"Emotion cannot easily be divorced from the concept of motivation and in this sense one can argue that emotion at some level is the engine of most forms of learning," Dolan said. For years, Dolan said, psychologists and psychiatrists and other physicians who study mental =llness have been apprehensive about delving into the understanding of emotion. "I think this has to do with the fact that for many years psychologists were uncomfortable with their (emotions') apparent subjective nature and the fact that emotions have bodily manifestations, as for example in a blush, that did not fit easily with a dominant information processing model of the mind," Dolan said.

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