You’re on the vacation of a lifetime in Kenya, traversing the savanna on safari, with the tour guide pointing out elephants to your right and lions to your left. Years later, you walk into a florist’s shop in your hometown and smell something like the flowers on the jackalberry trees that dotted the landscape. When you close your eyes, the store disappears and you’re back in the Land Rover. Inhaling deeply, you smile at the happy memory.
Now let’s rewind. You’re on the vacation of a lifetime in Kenya, traversing the savanna on safari, with the tour guide pointing out elephants to your right and lions to your left. From the corner of your eye, you notice a rhino trailing the vehicle. Suddenly, it sprints toward you, and the tour guide is yelling to the driver to hit the gas. With your adrenaline spiking, you think, “This is how I am going to die.” Years later, when you walk into a florist’s shop, the sweet floral scent makes you shudder.
“Your brain is essentially associating the smell with positive or negative” feelings, said Hao Li, a postdoctoral researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California. Those feelings aren’t just linked to the memory; they are part of it: The brain assigns an emotional “valence” to information as it encodes it, locking in experiences as good or bad memories.
And now we know how the brain does it. As Li and his team reported recently in Nature, the difference between memories that conjure up a smile and those that elicit a shudder is established by a small peptide molecule known as neurotensin. They found that as the brain judges new experiences in the moment, neurons adjust their release of neurotensin, and that shift sends the incoming information down different neural pathways to be encoded as either positive or negative memories. [Continue reading…]