What’s An Emotional Hangover?

What’s An Emotional Hangover?

Feelings can linger long after an experience and can affect how we remember it.


Just as a late night out with too many glasses of merlot can lead to next-day effects, scientists have found that emotions can cause “hangovers” as well. Unlike a booze related version though, emotional hangovers change how we perceive and remember future experiences.

A team at New York University used brain scans to come to this conclusion, publishing a study in the journal Nature Neuroscience that showed emotional brain states can continue for quite some time after an initial feeling takes place. For the study, half the participants looked a series of images with emotional content, and 10 to 30 minutes later, viewed a non-emotional, more normal set of images. The other half of the participants did the reverse: they looked at the non-emotional images first, then the emotion-laden ones. Six hours later, the researchers gave both groups a memory test of the images they had seen.

The group that had seen the emotional images first had better scores remembering the neutral images they’d seen, compared with the group who’d seen neutral images first, then emotional images. Using fMRI, which measures brain activity by looking at changes associated with blood flow, the data showed that the subjects’ brain states had carried over emotional experiences, changing the way subjects processed and memorized the neutral images.

“Emotion is a state of mind,” wrote the senior author of the study, Lila Davachi, Ph.D. Davachi is an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science. “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.”

What does this mean for us? That how we recall a later event is not just a result of the world around us; it’s heavily influenced by what is happening within us, and what may have happened to us hours beforehand.

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.

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