Have you ever wondered why are there situations you can remember better and more vividly than others? How you might even experience an intense emotion just by remembering an important event in your life? And on the contrary, why are there situations we can’t remember so easily or we can’t remember at all? Emotional memories remain longer and are experienced more intensely when remembered. Let’s discuss how your brain processes them.
We all have been surprised about how our memory works and the amount of information we are able to remember. For instance, faces, names, events in the past and in the future, and even how an object smells, tastes or feels like. Though having a bad memory is very often a complain, its capacity is similar to the one of a computer’s and is even more flexible and easier to use. (Read more on false memories)
Identity formation is also our memory’s responsibility. How? By being conscious of the experiences we’ve been through: our thoughts, emotions and reactions to those events. This is called the autobiographical memory. This type of memory is in charge of remembering everything that’s related to you and your relationships with the world.
Emotions and feelings are present in our daily life, enriching our reality. From a person we meet, an object we possess, a trip we take, or even just appreciating nature, emotions are always making experiences richer. The role these moods play in recalling events is an interesting topic to learn about in order to understand ourselves better.
There are always certain situations that are easier to remember than others. And although many factors influence your memory’s performance, a crucial one is emotion. Giving importance or paying attention to a situation, person, object, event or idea, improves our memory’s storage process.
On this matter, memory is selective. It will register and give value to the information that is more relevant to you. This value might be established according to how something makes you feel, the emotions it evokes on you (either pleasant or unpleasant), or even by the mood you’re in. This is why you might be able to remember better if you ran into someone you hadn’t seen for many years two weeks ago, rather than what you had for lunch last Friday. This means that interest and relevance to you are main factors in emotional memories.
Emotional Memories: Our brains
The limbic system is a part of the brain that regulates emotions and memory (read more on the functions of your limbic system). Amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, cingulate gyrus are only some of them. When an emotional event is taking place, the amygdala is activated. Afterward, the cerebral cortex processes the information. Some of the cortex involved are the prefrontal cortex, cingulate, cerebellum and somatosensory cortex. Also, as the hippocampus is in charge of storing information, it will also play an important role in the process. When these brain regions are activated, a “print” or “mark” will remain for our brains to recognize this information in the future. As a result, our brain will pay more attention to the event whenever it’s repeated in the future.
Here’s an example: a friend of yours gives you some shocking news. Immediately, an emotional reaction follows this information. In this case, the activation of the amygdala, hippocampus and cerebral cortex will store this as a memory. Consequently, the amygdala orders to liberate adrenaline and glucocorticoid hormones to the blood stream. These hormones have an impact on how you experience a situation, how it makes you feel physically. This is how emotional memories have a physical response as well.
By all this, involving stronger emotions in an event activates more the amygdala. Therefore, emotions not only help you remember better but also to have more vivid memories filled with details. It’s probable that whenever you think about the shocking news your friend gave you, you might even feel sad, remember exactly what you were doing and where you were in that moment. Time will pass by and you’ll still have those fresh details with you. When recalling this event and emotion, your brain will activate the same areas as if you were experiencing it in that same moment.
Emotional Memories: Pleasant and unpleasant
We all experience emotional events in different ways. Someone might consider a situation annoying, while it might be funny for another one. Hence, our reaction to a situation, person, object or idea, varies depending on our past experiences and our personality.
Our brain encodes pleasant and unpleasant situations differently. According to different studies, positive emotional memories are full of significant contextual details. Negative or unpleasant ones, on the other hand, are less specific. Some emotional events can be so impressive and intense that they boost brain activity. Thus, liberating hormones excessively, causing harm to your cardiovascular and immunologic system as well. As a consequence, you see damage in the neurons located in the hippocampus.
With this in mind, whenever a person goes through a traumatic situation (i.e. being a crime victim or a war veteran), there’s a hyper stimulation on some parts of the brain, like the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Along with the hormones liberated, the event will be more memorable and terrifying, harming health and memory.
In other cases, psychogenic amnesia may occur when forgetting strongly traumatic experiences. The stress of an emotional memory can provoke amnesia. Sometimes, not only does this person forget the particular disturbing event, but also a global or temporary loss of personal memory may happen. At the other hand, some persons can repress or block a stressing event and remembering years later. It must be taken into account that brain damage is not responsible for memory loss. In any case, psychotherapy must be specially recommended.
Emotional Memories: improve your memory
Why do we forget? Some factors involved can be age, time, stress and anxiety. In any case, what can help you enhance your memory? There are many factors, techniques, and tools: as mentioned above, attention, interest, and motivation are very important to assign a value to a situation and make it more memorable. Together with this, using techniques and tools are always helpful. Mnemotechnics are brain strategies to help you remember information better, using mental images or verbal keys, relating them to previous knowledge (like the world we live in or past experiences). You may also try Cognifit, a training program that uses brain games to strengthen the user’s weakest cognitive skills according to their needs.
To summarize, emotionally charged events help remembering better and more vividly than neutral ones. Being aware of the present moment and experiencing all emotions truly, will surely make you have more meaningful memories.
Marcela is a psychologist specialized in Neuropsychological Rehabilitation by the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona and is currently specializing on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. She’s passionate about volunteering and sharing experiences with people with brain injury as well as trying to help the disabled improve their quality of life. She believes that random acts of kindness make a difference in the world.