McGaugh received his B.A. from San Jose State University in 1953 and his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1959. He was briefly a professor at San Jose State and then did postdoctoral work in neuropharmacology with Nobel Laureate Professor Daniel Bovet at the Istituto Superiore di Sanitá in Rome, Italy. He then became a professor at the University of Oregon from 1961-1964. He was recruited to the University of California, Irvine, in 1964 (the year of the school's founding) to be the founding chair of the Department of Psychobiology (now Neurobiology and Behavior ). He became dean (1967–1970) of the School of Biological Sciences and Vice Chancellor (1975–1977) and executive Vice Chancellor (1978–1982) of the university, though he maintained his laboratory throughout that time. In 1983, he founded the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory  and remained director from 1983-2004.
McGaugh's early work (in the 1950s and 1960s) demonstrated that memories are not instantly created in a long-term, permanent fashion. Rather, immediately after a learning event, the memory is labile and susceptible to influence. As time passes, the memory becomes increasingly resistant to external influences and eventually becomes stored in a relatively permanent manner, a process termed memory consolidation. Dr. McGaugh found that drugs, given to an animal after a learning event, influence the subsequent retention of that event. The concept of such "post-training" manipulations is one of Dr. McGaugh's greatest contributions to the field of learning and memory because it avoids many potential confounds, such as performance effects of the drug, that may occur when a drug or other treatment is given prior to the training.
Over the ensuing decades, Dr. McGaugh extended his findings into a long-term investigation of emotionally-influenced memory consolidation. As most people realize, they have stronger memories for long-ago events that were emotionally arousing in nature, compared with memories for emotionally neutral events (which may not be remembered well at all). Dr. McGaugh has examined how emotional arousal influences memory consolidation. In particular, he has found that stress hormones, such as epinephrine and cortisol, mediate much of the effects of emotional arousal on subsequent retention of the event. These hormones, in turn, activate a variety of brain structures, including the amygdala, which appears to play a key role in modulating memory consolidation. The amygdala, when activated, influences a variety of other brain structures, including the hippocampus, nucleus accumbens and caudate nucleus that process different aspects of memory. It is through this "orchestration" of brain structures that memories are eventually formed and stored, though the exact nature of memory storage remains elusive.
McGaugh has been recognized in honor of his achievements, accomplishments, and contributions to the field of learning and memory. In 1981 he was honored with the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association. He received a Merit Award from the National Institute of Mental Health in 1987. McGaugh was elected a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1989 and was also elected a member of the Brazilian and Mexican academies of science. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has served as president of the Association for Psychological Science and the Western Psychological Association. He was selected as a William James Fellow, Association for Psychological Science, 1989. Other honors include the John P. McGovern Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1996 and the Robert S. Dow Neuroscience Award, 2000. The University of California, Irvine, honored him with the UCI medal in 1992 and the naming of a building after him, McGaugh Hall, in 2001. The University of L'Aquila, Italy, honored him with the Laurea Honoris Causa in 2001. In 2006 the Western Psychological Association awarded him Lifetime Achievement Award. He received the Norman Anderson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Experimental Psychologists in 2008 where he was elected a Fellow in 1991. He was also honored in 2009 with the Karl Lashley Prize in Neuroscience from the American Philosophical Society. McGaugh can be found playing in a jazz ensemble once a month at the UC Irvine campus pub.
- "JAMES L. MCGAUGH". University of California, Irvine. Retrieved 28 February 2013.
- Guide to the James L. McGaugh Awards. Special Collections and Archives, The UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, California.