If you're always forgetting things long-term — your partner's birthday, your social security number, the name of the boss you really need to impress to get a promotion — it turns out that science may have a solution for you. But you're not going to like it: A new study from Northwestern University in Chicago reveals that associating pain with particular experiences made it much more likely that people would remember them a year later. And the more intense the pain, the better the memory. So should you recite your phone number while pinching yourself till you bruise? And what's actually going on in the memory that makes it so weirdly sadistic?
As a person with excellent short-term memory and slightly more corroded long-term memory (I forgot my husband's middle names in an interview with immigration visa officials, which went about as well as you can imagine), this provides both an exciting opportunity for better memory and a lot of questions. Of course, we've known about pain and its association with behavior and memory for a long time; but we're just beginning to understand how it works and what it might mean. (If you've read Brave New World, the classic science fiction dystopia by Aldous Huxley, you may remember that he uses pain for conditioning too, in a disturbing scene where babies are electrically shocked until they draw away from certain things in favor of others.)
If you're contemplating throwing yourself tactically off a small bridge to help you memorize the quadratic equation, though, you may want to read this first. For one, there are many types of memory and many degrees of pain. For another, don't do that.
How Pain Can Help Your Memory (Sort Of)
The study involved showing 31 subjects photos of totally unmemorable stuff, like household objects, while subjecting them either to minor pain or full-on agony via a heat point on the arm. (Ouch. Science hurts.) Immediately after the viewing, all the subjects remembered about 75 percent of the objects, regardless of the intensity of their pain levels.
But a year later, the results were startlingly different. By then, people who'd experienced the worst agony while viewing the random objects remembered them far more clearly than the people who'd gotten by with a little bit of pain. So not only did pain amplify or "secure" the memory in the brain, it lodged it even further the more pain there was. This is actually part of an old idea called Hebbian plasticity, which is the theory that traumatic or painful events produce more connections in the brain, resulting in stronger memories.
We already knew that pain helps to "lodge" memory in place from studies with animals, but discussions of human pain and its effect on memory have actually been pretty far and few between. We tend to focus on memories of pain itself, from things like injuries and trauma, and how we remember them years later.
One area of particular interest for that sort of study has been labor and women's memories of it — because of the old wives' tale that women somehow "forget" the pain of labor after each birth, enabling them to go through the agony again. It turns out, a Swedish study of over 2,000 mothers over five years discovered, that some women do forget, but not all of them. The ones who experienced truly excruciating labor kept the memory of the pain perfectly in their minds.
So this new study is pretty revolutionary; but it's only part of the bigger story of pain, memory, and the human brain.
The Evolutionary Tie Between Pain And Memory
If we think about it a little, the link between experiencing serious pain and embedding deep, long-term memories makes a great deal of sense for the survival of the human species. If something caused, or was at least associated with, serious, life-threatening pain, it would serve the brain well to remember it clearly, so that if it turned up in the future we could avoid it like the plague. Saber tooth tiger bites hurt? We'll file that one away for next time.
It also makes sense that these memories would be part of our longer-term memory bank. The brain has several levels of memory: short-term memory, working memory, and long-term memory. Short-term memory is where things are reserved for brief periods while you use them, while long-term memory is where longer-lasting memories are preserved. Working memory is sort of in-between the two: it's where we use short-term memory information to do things like work out problems or do mental arithmetic. And it looks like pain, serious pain, has a built-in link to long-term memory. The scientists from the Chicago study did MRI scans on their subjects while they were being shocked, and found that serious pain appeared to be linked to the insula, which processes our emotions. It seems, weirdly, like agony might actually give us emotional pain, and thus make us more likely to remember it.
But it's not all advantages as far as pain and memory are concerned. It looks like serious, continuing agony may actually be disabling to short-term memory, rather than helping it. A 2007 Canadian study found that constant, chronic pain actually impedes working memory; people who'd suffered from pain for six months or longer underwent memory tests, and the results showed their pain actually short-circuits their short-term memories and ability to concentrate. This may be something special about people with chronic pain, but it also indicates that pain interacts with levels of memory in different ways.
So, What, You Should Pinch Yourself While You Study?
Look, frankly, you've got to do a cost-benefit analysis on the worth of embedding something into your brain using this kind of method. I'm sure it's very necessary for you to know the quadratic equation, but it looks like the only way to guarantee you remember it a year later is to go through severe pain. Sure, trauma does enhance your memory, but it really doesn't seem justified. Are you a spy memorizing nuclear launch codes? No? Then I wouldn't recommend it.
And science has also found that there are myriad other ways to improve your memory function without resorting to the cattle prod. Harvard recommends exercise, citing the discovery that six months of consistent, regular exercise is linked with an increase of volume in certain regions of the brain and with better brain function overall.
So I'm sure I'd remember my partner's middle names crystal clear if somebody came at me with a bat while I recited them, but frankly, I'm willing to take the chance.
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