Flashbulbs, Arousal, and Memory

n the category of "We knew it all along" is a study showing that arousal influences memory.1 What kind of arousal? Not physiological arousal such as running or pedaling a bike, but emotional arousal, in which central and background details of events are more easily remembered. In the study, recognition memory improved with emotional but not physiological arousal, leading to a reiteration that the source of arousal is an important determinant of an event's memorability,2 and that emotional arousal frequently serves to enhance the scope of memory.

Called "flashbulb memory," an example would be the emotions engendered by the loss of an esteemed public figure. In one study, the resignation of Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was found to give flashbulb memory to participants from the United Kingdom. Nearly one year after the event, 86% gave accounts that were characterized by spontaneous, accurate, and full recall of details, including minutiae.3 By contrast, only 29% of the non-U.K. participants had flashbulb memory one year later. This group was characterized by forgetting, errors of reconstructing the events, and nonsensical responses. If something elicits an emotional response, you tend to remember it, indicating that there is a special kind of brain coding that takes place.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if there were some way to give yourself more "flashbulbs," to become more emotionally involved with life?

Erwin Schrodinger, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, was reported to use sexual activity as an arousal device for inventing "thought experiments." Schrodinger took his mistress and ascended into the Alps over Christmas and New Year's, 1925-26, to think about a wave equation for matter and, reputedly, to spend all his time in bed.4 When he descended again in early January, he had developed wave mechanics, which, together with Werner Heisenberg's matrix mechanics, became the foundation of modern quantum theory. Schrodinger's paper on this subject is the most cited scientific paper of the twentieth century. He had apparently combined the physiological with emotional, and harnessed a brainstorm of heightened awareness. Schrodinger also wrote a book called What is Life?, a speculation on the physical basis of biology that is widely regarded among scientists as one of the most influential books of the century.


  1. Libkuman TM, Nichols-Whitehead P, Griffith J, Thomas R. Source of arousal and memory for detail. Mem Cognit 1999 Jan;27(1):166-90.
  2. Christianson SA. Emotional stress and eyewitness memory: a critical review. Psychol Bull 1992 Sep;112(2):284-309.
  3. Conway MA, Anderson SJ, Larsen SF, Donnelly CM, McDaniel MA, McClelland AG, Rawles RE, Logie RH. The formation of flashbulb memories. Mem Cognit 1994 May;22(3):326-43.
  4. Moore W. Schrodinger: Life and Thought. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Lupus is a disease that affects the immune system, causing it to turn on us. The immune system is an army united within our body that defends against attack from germs and viruses. In lupus, however, it is as if the antibodies have become unable to distinguish friend from foe, and they repeatedly attack healthy tissues, including the skin, heart, lungs, kidneys, and even the brain. The result is inflammation, pain, and swelling.

At a recent conference in California, DHEA was reported to provide significant improvement for those who suffer from lupus.1 DHEA was found to relieve the symptoms of arthritis and fatigue as it improved quality of life. Disease flareups in patients with lupus (the full name is systemic lupus erythematosus) were decreased.

It may come as a surprise, but according to The Lupus  Foundation of America, more people have lupus than AIDS, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, sickle-cell anemia, and cystic fibrosis combined. The Foundation estimates that between 1,400,000 and  2,000,000 people have it, and, although it is a mild disease for most, it may cause considerable and even life-threatening problems for some.

In the study, 265 patients received either DHEA or placebo over a period of one year. The lead researcher, Dr. Philip J. Mease of the University of Washington in Seattle, told the 8th International Scientific Conference on Lymphocytic Activation and Immune Response that 66% of lupus patients treated showed significant improvement. HDL (the good cholesterol) levels were reported to fall, but so did triglycerides, which had a compensatory effect.

The real surprise of the presentation was the report that spinal bone density increased in a subgroup of 37 patients, a robust effect according to Dr. Mease. This increase was also noted in hip-bone density. Because the patients were taking prednisone during the subanalysis, and prednisone is associated with a decline in bone density, DHEA was seen to provide benefit.

As well, key parameters of the immune system were observed to improve. The benefits seemed to be greatest for those with lupuslike symptoms rather than those with advanced disease.

While lupus itself does not appear to be an age-related disease,2  immunity does decline with age, as do levels of DHEA. When DHEA supplementation is given to replace lost levels, immune benefits have been found to accrue, even for normally healthy individuals. In one study with postmenopausal women, DHEA supplementation increased natural killer immune-cell activity dramatically.3 Along with immune enhancement, DHEA in replacement doses based on age and levels of decline induces growth factors, increases muscle strength and lean body mass, and enhances quality of life in aging men and women.4 There are no significant adverse effects.


  1. Androgenic hormone improves symptoms, improves bone density in lupus. ReutersHealthcom 2000, Feb 15; http://www.reutershealth.com/frame_archive.html
  2. Janwityanujit S, Totemchokchyakarn K, Verasertniyom O, Vanichapuntu M, Vatanasuk M. Age-related differences on clinical and immunological manifestations of SLE. Asian Pac J Allergy Immunol 1995 Dec;13(2):145-9.
  3. Casson PR, Andersen RN, Herrod HG, Stentz FB, Straughn AB, Abraham GE, Buster JE. Oral dehydroepiandrosterone in physiologic doses modulates immune function in postmenopausal women.  J Obstet Gynecol 1993 Dec; 169(6):1536-9.
  4. Yen SS, Morales AJ, Khorram O. Replacement of DHEA in aging men and women. Potential remedial effects. Ann NY Acad Sci 1995 Dec 29;774:128-42.

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