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Dwelling on the Past: How Emotions Shape Your Memory

As the years pass, you build up a collection of good and bad memories. Your brain has the ability to recall these memories at the drop of a hat – almost instantly. As an example, read the following questions and watch how fast your brain pulls the recollection: Name some songs by the Beatles. What was the last movie you saw? Where were you on 9/11? Where were you when the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced? Who is the president of the United States? Who was your first kiss?

As you can see, your brain instantly finds a memory when a question is asked. What is so important about this? Well, in daily living, especially during times of stress, your memory is very important. Your memory is active every second of your life. It can be controlled when you try and memorize something. Yet your memory is primarily unconscious, in that it works continually, automatically beyond your control and out of your awareness.

Ever wonder why some memories can stay vivid for years while others fade with time? The answer is emotion. Your memory will only hold on to new information (working memory) gained from your daily life for about five days (this is your short-term memory). Memories that are not emotionally significant are usually forgotten after this five-day waiting period (this is the time taken to transfer events from short to long term memory). The brain will learn or memorize all kinds of information with frequent repetition and constant use. However, if a memory containing only facts is not frequently used, the information slowly fades away. This is why you remember some events from the past with vivid detail, particularly the ones that were emotionally charged (like a favorite possession, an unjust punishment or first love).

Your emotional response to a memory begins 90 to 120 seconds after a memory surfaces. For example, recall when you were told about the loss of a loved one. The first two minutes of the conversation may have gone well, but then you become sad. If this memory remains in your attention, the feelings from the sadness will surface. Your mind then recalls other experiences of loss, unfairness, or guilt that is associated with what was felt at the time of your initial pain. In this way what was unconscious becomes conscious. You are now mindful of a memory, which was dormant but has quickly sprung to life. And the longer the memory is available in your awareness, the stronger the emotional component becomes, to the point that you may begin to cry. Famous actors and actresses have known this method for years. If they want to cry on stage, they can recall a painful memory from their personal life and within 90 seconds, tears are flowing.

When you experience a very significant event, the brain records not only the details of the experience (where you were, when, who was there, what happened, etc.) but the emotions you experienced at the time as well. The entire memory of an emotional event (an assault, an automobile accident, a wedding, death of a loved one, a combat experience, etc.) is actually remembered by several systems and stored in separate areas of the brain.

Humans are hardwired to remember things that threaten or are very rewarding to them. You have learned that what is threatening may be painful and what is rewarding may offer pleasure. These pleasures and pains trigger emotions that elevate the status of any would-be memory. This makes a lot of sense in evolutionary terms: emotional events would be biologically significant. Many survival lessons involve emotion, such as fear, anger or joy and your memory is enhanced by hormones that are released when you experience a strong emotion or stress. However, to our hunter-gatherer ancestors threats were more important than gains. If they missed a reward, life goes on. But it they missed a threat, the species ends. So if grandpa Joe got killed by a bear in a certain part of the forest, our hunter-gatherer ancestors learned not to explore that neck of the woods. When these painful moments occur all sorts of hormones are released which strengthen our memories. This explains why emotional arousal has such a powerful influence on how well you remember things.

You may not remember all of your many trips to the grocery store or gas station. However, you will always remember times that have a bad value attached to them, such as the time a store was robbed when you were there, the time an old lady threatened you over a parking spot, or the time you spilled gasoline all over your clothes at one of those self-serve pumps. In short, if a memory does not have a strong emotional value, it is faded out.

The problem is that you can give an ordinary, harmless, experience greater emotional value then it really deserves. Emotional memories re-create your original emotional response. A sight, a sound, or even a smell can bring back the joy, fear, love, or hate that you have associated with it. Perhaps, you have injured your knee in an accident and whenever the memory is reactivated in your mind, the knee may begin to throb with pain and discomfort. The strength of the memory is associated with the intensity of the event. This can cause your body to react as it did at the time of your experience. So whenever you see and or hear about an accident, or even watch one in a movie, your memory triggers painful tension in your knee.

This raises the important point that the brain doesn’t know if an experience is real or imagined! How can this be you may ask? Well, the brain creates memories based on information it is given, usually through your senses but sometimes through your thoughts. If you are in the same room with your sweetheart, it will give you that warm, romantic feeling. However, looking at a picture of loved ones and thinking about them will do the same thing, even though they are not present. Even better, simply thinking about a lover can produce the same feelings (triggering the same emotional memory) as when you were together. The brain only reacts to the thought or sense, it doesn’t care how it receives that feeling or information, be it by physical presence, by reminders (pictures), or by “thought”.

Dwelling on the Past: How Emotions Shape Your Memory

Aaron Karmin

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APA Reference
Karmin, A. (2015). Dwelling on the Past: How Emotions Shape Your Memory. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Sep 2015
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