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E. Memory Under Stress

Narrator: Memory is a mystery, but researchers are starting to figure out how it works. This is Science Today. Biologist Larry Cahill of the University of California, Irvine is one of a growing number of scientists who think our bodies and brains have a special system that imprints really important memories so they'll remain vivid. It works differently from normal memory, activating only when you're under stress.

Cahill: This system got activated for example in people who are old enough who heard that John F. Kennedy was shot, this is now the archetypical and somewhat overused example.

Narrator: Cahill says the system has two components: the adrenal system and a structure in your brain called the amygdala.

Cahill: But the idea is that this same stress system basically fed back to people's brains and created memories of that event which were much stronger than, say, memories of what happened the previous day. Nobody can remember what they did before the day they heard Kennedy was shot, yet everyone seems to still today have these vivid memories. How did that happen? What did your brain do differently? This is what we study.

Narrator: For Science Today, I'm Steve Tokar.