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February 26, 2020

All our memories are emotional

by Kristy Castleton

How we feel has a massive impact on the human mind – from our attention spans and learning capacity to our reasoning and problem-solving – so it should come as no surprise that emotion takes centre stage in both the memory-making and memory-recalling process. Whether tying the knot or jumping out of a plane, our most entrenched memories are those with the strongest emotional attachment. 


How emotions affect memory-making

As you might imagine, experiences that shock, delight or anger are more likely to end up as a graphic long-term memory than a bland, everyday experience like preparing breakfast. That’s because we assign more emotional attachment to skydiving than buttering toast. 

In 1977, a Harvard paper entitled Flashbulb Memories stated that people were more likely to vividly remember an experience when it had personal significance. The birth of your first child, your first day at school, your first crush. However, recent research shows emotion, rather than personal connection, enhances our ability to encode (prepare information for storage) an experience into a long-term memory. Take September 11th: we remember where we were not because of personal connection, but how it made us feel. 


How emotion affects memory storage

From the love of skydiving to the fear of cows (or vice-versa), the emotions we attach to certain information will decide how it is stored and how ‘memorable’ it is. According to Clifford Nash of Stanford University, the scary herd of Fresians is likely to be the more entrenched memory as “almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail” as they are processed more thoroughly than happy emotions. 

Meanwhile, economist Daniel Kahneman notes how the ‘experiencing self and the remembering self’ are two separate entities. We may ‘experience’ a relaxing two week holiday, but we ‘remember’ the intense emotional peaks and the ending, which can be both positive (the thrill of the skydive) and negative (bags lost at the airport on the way home). 


Emotional recall

Emotions also play a starring role in when and how we recall information. In 1981, Gordon Bower found that people have ‘mood-state-dependent’ memories and remember events according to how they were feeling at the time. Known as mood congruence, it explains why some people will smile when seeing a cow (childhood, picture books, petting zoo) and others will coil in anguish (horns, snorting, thundering hooves). 

Meanwhile, mood dependence shows that it’s easier to retrieve a memory when we’re in the same emotional state as when we made that memory. Therefore jumping out of a plane or walking through a farmer’s field will bring us a flood of similar emotionally-charged memories depending on your inclination. 


Why do emotions influence memory?

Emotions and memory have been bedfellows since the dawn of humanity thanks to our basic instinct to survive. Back in the Stone Age, it was more important for our ancestors to fear sabre-tooth tiger than appreciate the smell of flowers and so our brains have learnt to be more perceptible to emotive subjects, especially negative ones. 

Biologically-speaking, it all revolves around the amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the brain that regulates emotion. According to neurosurgeon Jon T. Willie, “if you have an emotional experience, the amygdala seems to tag that memory in such a way so that it is better remembered,” which is why the amygdala is best known for human’s ‘fight or flight’ response. 

Sabre-tooth tigers may have evolved into dark alleyways, but the effect of emotional memory as a guide of present behaviour is undiluted. Whether consciously or subconsciously, how we feel about a stimulus determines its memorability and that’s why Rebel & Soul puts emotion at the heart of neuroexperience design.


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