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What is emotional memory?

Emotional memories last longer

What's emotion got to do with memory?

Our emotions and our memories are inexorably linked. On one level, emotional memory simply refers to the notion that very emotional events are often memorable. As you might expect we're more likely to remember emotionally charged images (for example the scene of a car crash or of someone crying) than neutral ones. Furthermore, we're more likely to remember any image if we ourselves are in a state of heightened emotion.

Emotional memory can also refer to how an object, event or even a person can make us feel by triggering an existing memory that has emotional significance. For example, you might instantly take a liking to someone at a party because their perfume or aftershave is the same as that of your spouse or partner.

'Flashbulb' memories are another example of how emotion and memory are connected. The term refers to the phenomenon of knowing where you were and what you were doing at the time that you learned about a major and often shocking public event, such as the death of John F Kennedy, the September 11 attacks, or England winning the World Cup. Thanks to its emotional underpinning, the event is now bound up in your memory with what you were doing at the time you heard it.

Stress and survival

Our brain chemistry is what links our emotions to our memories. Fear is a good example of this. When we feel afraid, a raft of physiological changes takes place in our bodies which help us to survive the perceived threat. We undergo what's called the 'flight or fight' response, where our bodies and brains are flooded with chemicals that set of a cascade of other events (increased blood flow to our arms and legs for example) which prepare us for action.

In evolutionary terms, it's worth us remembering the circumstances surrounding a threat, so the brain has evolved a way of connecting the release of these chemicals to the memory of the event, ensuring that not only is it stored but it can be also recalled quickly in case we find ourselves in similar circumstances. Often this process, especially with something as primal as fear, happens on a subconscious level. Our bodies react before we our aware of any danger. This principle applies to many of our most emotionally-fuelled experiences, not just to fear.

In our brains, we have two sets of almond-shaped neurons, called amygdala, (Greek for almond), one in each hemisphere, that are thought to be key in processing emotional experiences. Involved in a variety of functions, it's now believed the amygdala (usually referred to in the singular) interacts closely with the brain's memory centres, helping to lay down emotional memories.

Though emotion, and particular stress, can help us to remember things, it's possible for prolonged and extreme emotional states to damage the "normal" processing of memory. In some cases this might lead to the subject re-living some traumatic event over and over in their mind, unable to store it away properly or forget it. This is a common symptom of conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which may be caused by faulty emotional processing and long-term exposure to brain chemistry that's designed to deal with short-term threats. You can find out more on the page about PTSD.

YOUR COMMENT

Walt
As i get older i can vividly remember extreme detail of places and family holidays and happy times. I cant remember my later teen years too well but can recall standing next to my pram (pre school)ouside the local shops getting impatient with my mum chatting. Earliest memories are 2-3 years old and can still visualise the details but not the landscape. i can now lose the plot in a minute! age 20-40 is a blur and my children are no longer small. when i was 5 one year was a fifth, now i am 47 one year is a small fraction and goes quickly.

oran
I also had returned after several years to my hometown. As I drove past my old childhood home I had the erie feeling that I was in my room as a young boy looking out at me in the car and as I drove past an old girlfriends house who I onced loved, all the old memories suddenly flooded back like a dam bursting. I felt that if I touched the bell, a 20 year old girl would appear,just as I remembered her. In retrospect, maybe some doors to old memories are best left closed

Mary
Like Mike, I can remember significant numbers - my OU registration number from several years ago for example. Also like Mike, my memory seems crowded out with embarrasments and humiliations - I like his idea of a 'self-flagellant psyche' - it fits. Some of my personal squirm-making moments belong to childhood, but nothing serious or special, just the correction of a spoilt brat. The bad images I have, which crowd out anything good, date back to when I met my second husband - and continue to accumulate.

Mand
I have had psychologists and life-coaches try to get me to remember good things in my life and I still cant. I feel permanently linked to my past and feel like all the criticsm and disappointment is going to happen again and again because I cant remember what I did to be successful!

jonty1955
I have a string of infant memories, some from when I was just a few months old, that are emotionally very intense. They are moments of discovery (accidentally hitting a pram toy and making it rattle, then feeling almost unbearably excited and waving my fists around trying to hit it again), pleasure (my mother playing "This little piggy" with my toes after my bath), and more rarely trauma (getting lost in a department store when I was about two and a half). If the emotions hadn't been so powerful, I'm sure the memories wouldn't be there. The sensory detail in these memories is very strong, and the smells of Johnsons Baby Powder, wax furniture polish or a parrafin heater will always bring half a dozen or so memories to the surface. I always "feel" the emotion of the remembered moment, which leaves behind an increasing sense of loss for those times as I grow older.

MAXENE
I thought it was only me who only remembered the bad times, none of the good. Every one says 'move on', I moved on, but in a big spiral carrying years of sadness and unhappiness, because of bad memories, with me.This is the first time in may years I suddenly feel positive about my future despite being 50 next week. Outwardly I am always the happy, confident one, inside I am like a scared lonley child.

David
I read these comments with growing interest as it dawned on me that each one of us has different strengths when it comes to laying-down memories/ recall events. Our relative strengths and weaknesses reflect our innate (?) ability to store/ retrieve the memories associated with different types of emotions. I have always castigated myself for my poor memory but the insight emerging from reading Mikeís comments made me realise that I have a particularly good memory when it comes to certain parts of my life (i.e. the embarrassing things). Now each time I remember an embarrassing event I can congratulate myself on my good memory. I canít remember numbers like Mike but I do remember many of the good things that have happened in my life, so reading this article and associated comments made me feel rather proud of my memory - itís actually twice as good as I thought!

Sarah
I had a patch where my previously good memory for work, especially whatpeople said and how they said it, became terribly unreliable. Later I disovered I had been suffering from post-traumatic stress after an operation went terribly wrong and this was what caused the problem. I remembered every detail of my hospital stay.I tried so hard to keep working and manage but it was hopeless. In the end I resigned from my job and had eight months off work. Initially I didn't want to see people outside my family and close friends and I used to pretend I was invisible when I was out! I saw a psychologist through the Job Centre (many thanks to Louise,the worker in charge of getting people back to work after illness)when I felt well enough to go back to work. He explained that the normal memory is affected if the mind is struggling to process a traumatic episode, almost as if too much capacity is taken up with this processing. My memory returned almost to how it was before and the details of my hospital stay have become more blurred as time goes on. It is now five years since the operation.I think the lessening of memory now is from the physical consequences of the op. not the emotional ones as before.

Assumed name!
The PTSD bit reminds me of the only time I ever heard a voice speaking to me. A bloke I was going out with (11 years younger and I stupidly believed I had found a soul mate)said "Oh [Assumed name] what am I going to do with you?" And this LOUD voice in my head said "marry me!" I freaked out silently - he later dumped me and I spent the next 6-7 years thinking about him every bloody day! I have never told anybody this until this e-mail! Not even my psychiatrist........

Silvana
I can illustrate how emotions and memory are linked. A few years ago I returned into the town where I was born that I had not visited for 40 years. I was trying to find my grand mother's house but the town had changed and I could not find it. After a day of unsuccessfull search I gave up and decided to head towards another part of the town to visit a park where I was used to play when I was a child. Suddlenly as I was approaching a cross road a smell of roasted coffee entered into my nostrils and I started to run into a street towards an unknown direction. After a few seconds I realised that my behaviour was irrational and stopped running. Simultaneously I started to recognise some of the features of that street and I headed towards a place where I knew I was going to find my grand mother's house...and here it was, unchanged. Later I tried to understand my earlier strange behaviour and could clearly remember that the smell of roasting coffee beans already existed and that I was associating it to the fact that I was approaching my grand mother's house. I also remembered how similar my behaviour was when I was visiting my grand mother during my childhood and how my mother who was walking behind me was calling me back but I did not want to obey. My grand mother loved me very much and she made me happy. The recalling of this event is always associated with an unusual feeling of happiness in my heart.

MEL
I find that incidents that were extremely emotionally intense at the time are now 'numb' memories - I don't have or remember the feelings which is a bit sad when I remember people I really loved who died for example

lynne
I can remeber lots of things from the past - useless information like what we did at a certain place when I was a child but I'm hopeless at remembering what I did last week. I'm only 35 so there is no help for me when I get older!

Pam
I have very similar memory experiences as Mike - all negative things remembered and squirming even 50 or so years on

chrissy
I am so interested to read what Mike has to say about remembering bad things and feeling terribly uncomfortable still. My own bad/sad memories far outnumber the happy ones. But then, I had a very unhappy childhood. Strange that these memories will pop up without any effort at all. I'd love to be able to recall some really jolly moments. The other thing I would like to record is that (like everyone else) things have gone wrong but sometimes I find it difficult to remember good times in my adult life without these memories jogging 'attached' recollections which spoil them. An example would be looking at a photo of my baby son (now 27) taken on a happy day and instantly feeling miserable about what followed years later - the divorce with his father. I'd love some purely happy memories. Have to emphasise that I am a very happy contented person now!

Diana
A few years ago, I was in a museum and they had a 1950s display. I saw a toy washing machine (wringer on top)and immediately felt very strong positive emotional feelings. I recalled my mum having a washing machine of the same kind and I could picture the kitchen and the machine in the middle. Although I had no recollection of an identical toy washing machine, I was convinced from my strong emotions on seeing it that I must have had one. I phoned my Mum and Dad straight away and they confirmed that I used to have an identical toy washing machine and I would wash my doll's clothes when Mum washed our clothes. They think I must have been about 4 or 5. Generally speaking what few early "memories" I have, I think are from what I have been told by my Grandparents or parents. I do have some "mental pictures" of rooms in a house that I lived in at an early age. I find that going to a place that I have been to as a child stimulates the memory, enables me to retrieve things.

IanKemmish
I can distinctly remember occasions when I am pretty sure I was happy. In each case (apparent success in relationships, business or musical accomplishment) the cause of the happiness was subsequently removed. I find I can remember the fact that I was happy but I cannot for the life of me remember what it felt like.

kentwellsussanah
it's probably understandable that my first definite memory is sitting in a tin bath in front of my auntie's fire at the age of 5, and being told that my Grandma had died; we had shared a bedroom since my birth.

julia
I have some very traumatic early memories which have shaped my present personality and the way I react with the world. I go over them again and again and they are very vivid in every aspect, I can recall all my emotions and can describe the scenes in extreme detail of sight, sound, smell. However, although I can recall the emotions I do not re-experience them. I can talk quite dispassionately about the extreme painful traumas which shaped my life.

Mike
I am blessed with a very good memory - bank card numbers, my NI number, the number of every car I've ever had, even my Service serial number. But a good memory can be perverse. Mine remembers bad things, embarrasments and humiliations right from earliest childhood with such clarity that I can still squirm but it does not remember the happy times, the good times, the fun.But perhaps its not my memory's fault - it may be that my memory is simply the servant of a self-flagellant psyche.

surya
i can clearly understand about forgetting things.

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