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James McGaugh Wins 2015 Grawemeyer Psychology Award for Seminal Work on Memory

James McGaugh is the recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for psychology, the University of Louisville announced Tuesday evening.

The University of California-Irvine neurobiology and behavioral research professor earned the $100,000 prize for his research on stress hormones, and the role they play in determining why we remember some things more vividly than others.

In the award announcement, U of L Grawemeyer Woody Petry said McGaugh’s work has “transformed the field. It has profound implications for helping us understand and treat memory disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.”

McGaugh joined the faculty at UC-Irvine in 1964. He founded the university’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and has a campus building named after him. During his career, McGaugh has written or co-written more than 550 publications, and his work on emotion and memory has been cited 31,000 times in more than 15,000 professional papers.

McGaugh spoke to WFPL about his study of the processes involved in retaining memories after an experience.

Tell me about your work.

In particular, I’m interested in the influence of emotional arousal on memory, such that we tend to remember better events that are emotionally arousing. So if you get even slightly excited about anything, then there’s a whole cascade of events that takes place that increases the likelihood of storing that information so it’s available for recall at a later time.

And the cascade starts with the experience, and then there is a release of stress hormones—cortisol and adrenaline. These both have influence that activates a very specific region of the brain, called the amygdala, which in turn is in communication with every other region of the brain. Such that if anything happens which is slightly arousing and the system gets engaged, then what it does is instructs a stronger storage of that information in the brain. And this would account for why it is that we seem to remember better those things that are emotionally exciting.

So that would be why I can remember, say, the birth of my child but not a random Tuesday last month.

Yes, but it happens online all the time. It doesn’t have to be a very special event, it’s events that are occurring throughout your day, throughout my day. It just happens that anything that is slightly emotionally arousing will activate this system and it will have a special privilege and memory. So it’s not designed for special occasions.

For example, if I said, and I would not say, but if I said ‘that’s a stupid question,’ you would remember that. Because that would embarrass you and you would be emotionally excited by that.

Is there any way that humans can kind of hack this? You can say, ‘Hey, I really want to remember this moment or this particular thing so I’m going to induce this flood of stress hormones.’

Well, one could. And there’s research that’s going on—not my research, but research that’s based on these findings—in which they’ve taken this into the classroom. And recent studies have shown that if college students are shown an exciting movie shortly after they receive a lecture on standard material, they do better on the midterm exam at a later time. So, the excitement doesn’t have to be connected with the information that was learned.

There’s a lot of interest in students taking drugs in order to do better in school. And my view is, they don’t need to, all they need to do is get excited about what they’re reading and what they’re learning and the brain would take care of it.

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