Researchers have shown what happens inside our brain when we think our life may be over. The discovery was made during tests on passengers who escaped death when their plane ran out of fuel over the Atlantic.
Led by Baycrest Health Sciences' Rotman Research Institute, the study focused on passengers who were aboard Air Transat Flight 236, which was headed for Lisbon from Toronto but ran out of fuel due to leakage while flying over the Atlantic Ocean on August 24, 2001.
The plane had to make a distressed landing on a small island military base in the Azores. According to the study, a single traumatic incident can heighten memories and skew perceptions years after the event.
"This traumatic incident still haunts passengers regardless of whether they have Post-Traumatic stress disorder or not," the study's lead author Daniela Palombo said. The survivors' memories were associated with heightened responses in a network of brain regions known to be involved in emotional memory.
These regions included the amygdala, hippocampus, and midline frontal and posterior regions, when compared to remembering a neutral autobiographical memory. "They remember the event as though it happened yesterday, when in fact it happened almost a decade ago at the time of the brain scanning. Other more mundane experiences tend to fade with the passage of time, but trauma leaves a lasting memory trace."
A decade later, eight passengers agreed to the second phase of the study, which involved brain scanning during presentation of video recreation of the AT incident, footage of the 9/11 attacks, and a neutral event.
Researchers found that the passengers showed a remarkably similar pattern of heightened brain activity in relation to another significant but less personal trauma - the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which occurred just three weeks after the Air Transat incident.
The 'carryover effect' in the AT passengers was intriguing and may indicate that the Air Transat flight scare changed the way the passengers process new information.
It possibly made them more sensitive to other negative life experiences.