Understanding The Facts About Emotional Memory
Updated December 11, 2018
Reviewer Audrey Kelly, LMFT
What is it about memories that even years later, when something triggers them, we can still feel the emotions as powerfully as if we were back there again, right at that moment? This is referred to as "emotional memory," and it's the same reason we take photographs. Coming across a certain song, memento, or even food later in life can remind of our memories, pleasant and unpleasant, from days long passed.
- Why We Tend To Remember Traumatic Memories More Clearly
It sucks to be reminded of something from your past that you'd rather forget, especially if it were particularly traumatic or upsetting. For instance, you may not be able to remember the name of the bully who always picked on you in elementary school, but you'll surely remember every detail about the hospital room that your mother passed away in, right down to the scent of the room and the quality of her television screen.
When it comes to the clarity of our recall, it isn't so much about the memories themselves being different enough to remember years later. One memory is no different from another memory. Instead, it is the confidence with which we can recall such a memory that encourages the details of that memory to remain stronger in our minds years later.
Traumatic memories are referred to as "flashbulb memories," and we don't start to develop these until we're usually about eight years old. This is because, by the time we're eight years old, we understand enough about the situation to know that what is happening to us is important.
- Details Of Memories Change Over Time
It has been one year since your sister's car accident. You can remember the time the call came in to give you the devastating news, and you can remember where you were when you received that call. You can even remember the location of the accident, right down to the exact spot on the road. But do you remember as clearly what you were doing right before you got that call? Or who you were with after?
The human brain tends to lose about 50 percent of the details of memory after about a year has passed. You may still remember the tragic incident itself pretty clearly, but the details surrounding the incident may start to get fuzzier the more time passes.
In fact, this is the very reason why witnesses to a crime become more unreliable as the case goes on. They may not report details accurately even directly following the incident they witnessed, as the memory of the incident can be impacted simply by how the person recounts it.
For instance, if the witness saw someone slap another person in a bar, but the witness says it was a "punch," then the witness may come to legitimately remember the slap being harder and faster than it truly was. This, of course, would mean to the witness that the person doing the slapping was guilty of assault. He punched the other guy, the other guy went down…end of story, right? The guy's guilty.
…Except that it's not the end of the story. In actuality, the victim thought he was going to be punched and passed out from fear right as the slapper made contact with his face.
The witness will swear up and down that she remembers the incident as clear as day, and she may believe that she truly does. This is a common case of misplaced confidence when we are confident that we clearly remember every detail about an incident, but what is clear are only a few details central to the incident itself.
Some people even invent new memories on top of the memory they're so sure they recall. This witness, for instance, may remember blood trickling down the victim's face, when there wasn't any to be had.
- Why Fact-Based Memory Is Not Nearly As Powerful As Emotional Memory
Imagine that you're in history class, listening to the teacher prattle on about World War I. The teacher is laying out the basic facts, what happened in what year and to whom, and why the war started in the first place. None of this has any real emotional resonance with you, but you diligently take your notes, knowing that you're going to have to refer to them several times to help the information stick long enough to help you pass the test. You get a 75 on the test. It's okay, but not great.
The next semester, you're in the same class, and you're learning about World War II - specifically, the Holocaust. The teacher can't stop himself from crying now, because he has relatives who survived the Holocaust. He can barely get through the lecture and has to take a moment to compose himself. You find that you don't need to take as many notes because you are spellbound, hanging on his every word. You get a 95 on the test and barely had to consult your notes.
When we tie our emotions to memory, it is much easier to recall those memories. Think of any heartbreaking story you read on social media. Someone brings it up a year later, and you immediately feel sad all over again. "Oh yeah, I had wondered what had happened to that little boy. So sad…"
Our emotional memory is much stronger than our factual memory, which means that the memories we form with emotional ties we can recall more accurately and strongly than memories that were based on facts.
- Emotional Memory And Suppressed Memories
Emotional memory is that which allows us to recall memories long suppressed or forgotten. The problem with this is that we also cannot control it. You may be having a good day, cleaning out your attic, when you stumble upon one of your ex-boyfriend's old shirts that you forgot you had. You recall all of the abuse he put you through, and your mood is instantly dampened.
You throw the shirt away, hoping to rid yourself of ever being reminded of that experience again, but there's only so much you can do. You may eat something someday that you once ate with him, and the memory will come back again. Or you may hear a song on the radio that triggers it.
Unpleasant memories can be incredibly powerful tools to help us learn about who we are by shaping who we have become. But we cannot control what we remember and how we can control how we respond to those memories.
The best way to overcome your negative memories after facing them head-on is to simply move on with your life and be open to experiencing new experiences. The more you experience, the more memories you create, and the more you can tamp down on the ones that rear their ugly heads every once in a while.
Plus, if you're out living your life, you're spending less time reflecting on a painful past that should be left where it is - in the past. If you spend too much time living in the past, then you miss your present and, worse, your future. Your past is important and has shaped who you are, but after you have come to terms with this, the healthiest thing you can do is move on from it and go on to create new and happier memories.
- Emotions Memory And Mood
Here's something interesting: your mood affects what you remember and how you remember it. Researchers have found that the mood you are in now can affect what you remember right now. For instance, if you're feeling depressed over a breakup, then you will remember more of the things that depress you, like your dog passing away when you were five years old.
Similarly, you are also more likely to remember something if you induce a particular emotional state while the event is happening. For instance, if something inconsequential happened to you like you won a pencil at the county fair, but it made you super excited to win because you needed that pencil for school, then you may associate that memory with any time you get super excited. "This is just like that time I won that pencil at the county fair!"
The stronger the emotion that is felt at the time of an incident, the stronger the memory of that incident will be. Similarly, if you're not feeling strongly about a particular incident, you may find that you'll have difficulty recalling that memory later on.
For instance, for some who suffer from depression, they may find it difficult to become as excited as other parents to watch their children graduate from high school. As a result, they may find it more difficult to recall their child's high school graduation day in the future.
A great tip from Psychology Today: our emotions tell us to pay attention to whatever has grabbed their attention. However, when it comes to painful or traumatic memories, instead of seeing these memories as encouragement to dwell on a painful incident, we can instead treat the remainder as a form of motivation to encourage us to leave the past in the past where it belongs.
Interested in learning more about emotional memory? Contact one of our BetterHelp counselors for more information.