Psychological scientist James McGaugh, one of APS’s first presidents, has won the prestigious 2015 Grawemeyer Award in Psychology, in recognition of his seminal research on the link between emotions and memory.
A neurobiology and behavior research professor at University of California, Irvine, McGaugh received the prize for discovering that stress hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol play a critical part in determining why we remember some things more vividly than others. The hormones activate the amygdala (the brain’s emotional center), which in turn regulates other brain areas that process and consolidate memories — a sequence that explains why our emotional experiences are easier to recall, he found.
“His work has transformed the field,” said award director Woody Petry. “It has profound implications for helping us understand and treat memory disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Five Grawemeyer Awards are given each year by the University of Louisville for outstanding works in music composition, ideas improving world order, psychology, education, and religion. (The religion prize is granted jointly with the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.) This year’s awards are worth $100,000 each.
“The award is, of course, a complete surprise to me and a terrific honor,” McGaugh said. “Although I will receive the award, much of the credit for the ideas being recognized by the award belongs to the many graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and undergraduate students who have worked with me in research investigating brain systems involved in consolidating memories.”
McGaugh began studying the link between emotion and memory in the 1960s, when he learned that giving stimulants to animals immediately after training helped them remember their exercises. Later, he learned that naturally occurring stress hormones had a similar memory-enhancing effect. His work in this area has been featured on television programs such as CBS’s 60 Minutes, described in dozens of textbooks, and cited some 31,000 times in more than 15,000 professional papers.
Recently, McGaugh has studied people with highly superior autobiographical memory to see if differences in their brain structure may account for the trait.
McGaugh is an APS William James Fellow Award recipient and served as APS President from 1989–1991.
“Jim was such an important figure in APS,” said APS Executive Director Alan G. Kraut. “This award acknowledges what we also knew – that Jim is a towering figure throughout psychological science.”
McGaugh also is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Society for Neuroscience, the International Brain Research Organization, the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, the Society of Experimental Psychologists, and the World Academy of Art and Science. In addition, he is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.