"Emotional Hangovers" Are Totally Real

by Lily Feinn

As anyone who woke up on Jan. 1 with raccoon eyes and a screaming headache knows, the actions of the night before can affect you the following day — and I'm not necessarily talking about alcohol. What is an emotional hangover, exactly? Because according to a new study out of New York University, it's actually a thing. What's more, the "hangover" produced by emotions is actually quite helpful for your memory.

Researchers coined the term "emotional hangover" to describe a phenomenon a little different than the one we experience from over-imbibing. This hangover is not the type that needs Advil, but is instead, as Merriam-Webster defines it, “something (as a surviving custom) that remains from what is past.” The research, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, found that if an event is particularly memorable, it may be due to emotional arousal. In other words, emotions and what's going on inside our heads can actually help you encode and recall events more clearly — hence, "emotional hangover."

"How we remember events is not just a consequence of the external world we experience, but is also strongly influenced by our internal states," the study's lead author and Associate Professor of Psychology, Lila Davachi, said in a press release. "And these internal states can persist and color future experiences."

To find out the affect emotion has on memory, Davachi and her team instructed two groups of participants to look at sets of images. One group of pictures consisted of neutral images, while the other came from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS), which are typically used to elicit emotional reactions from the viewer.

One group was shown the neutral images first, and then the emotionally arousing images between 10 and 30 minutes later. The other group, meanwhile, viewed the image sets in the reverse order. After six hours had passed, the participants were tested to see how many of the images they could recall.

Results showed that those who viewed the emotionally arousing images at the start had better recall of the neutral images than those who first viewed the non-emotional images. It seemed, according to brain scans, that the emotional images had prepared the participants' brains to encode memories more successfully. “These findings make clear that our cognition is highly influenced by preceding experiences and, specifically, that emotional brain states can persist for long periods of time,” Davachi added.

This could explain why we tend to remember the events that transpire immediately following a breakup so clearly (provided you don't go and immediately get the other type of hangover, that is). “We see that memory for non-emotional experiences is better if they are encountered after an emotional event,” Davachi said in the press release. The "hangover" in this case has to do with the lingering effects of the emotional event, with the memory recall being something of an interesting side effect.

Emotions continue to affect us and how we see the world long after their first flush of feeling has passed, but that doesn't mean you should go and break up with your bae before studying for an exam. Just sayin'.