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Gene chemistry may make more intense memories

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By The Washington Post
Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Some people just see the world more darkly than others.

A group of scientists says that what people observe in everyday life may depend on their genetic blueprint. A particular gene, known to play a part in emotional memories, could also influence where people tend to focus their eyes and attention.

“People think there's a world, and our brain just tells us about it,” said study author and Cornell University psychologist Adam Anderson. “What our brain tells us is filtered, and emotions really have a powerful influence on how we see the world.”

Subjects who had a specific form of a gene in which certain amino acids are missing, found in about half of Caucasians, had a heightened awareness of negative stimuli. For instance, these people might look down a busy city street and catch the shady character hanging out by the ATM rather than the jubilant children playing in the park. Or during a nature hike, they would focus on the slippery rocks instead of the breathtaking scenery.

Typically, the more emotionally stirring an event, the more vivid the memory — think flashbulb memories such as the moment you heard about 9/11 or JFK's assassination. These, along with other emotionally charged memories, are stamped into the brain with the help of a chemical called norepinephrine.

Individuals with the missing amino acids in the ADRA2B gene have more norepinephrine in their brains, and as a result, “experience the flash of the flashbulb memory more intensely,” said lead author and University of British Columbia psychologist Rebecca Todd.

The new findings hint that not only is the gene linked to more vivid emotional memories, but it may also make people more prone to noticing the negative in real time.

“People who have this gene might have more intense memories because they experience them more strongly,” Todd said.

The study was published online on Thursday in the journal Psychological Science.

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