The Effect of Emotion on Memory

All experience is filtered through our belief system and, thus, affects our memory of what occurred. Memories are also influenced and distorted by our emotional state—our mood—when something happens as well as the emotional reactions we have to the experience itself. Because of these, two people can witness the same event, yet their memories of it are completely different.

I first became aware of how strongly emotion affects memory few years ago. My daughter was talking with me about something that occurred when she was young. Her recollection was hard to listen to because of how painful the memory was for her and because of the emotions it conjured up in me. My memory of the same event was vastly different. At first I argued with her about what happened, but that only made things worse. She felt like I wasn’t hearing her and the already painful experience became more agonizing. Luckily someone counseled me to ignore the “facts” as we remembered them, and instead imagine what my daughter must have been feeling to remember the event the way she had. She was very young at the time, so emotional memory was more prevalent than factual memory. When I let go of trying to correct the details and listened for the feelings, it completely changed how I responded to her. I became empathetic instead of argumentative, concerned instead of angry, and approachable instead of closed off. Unencumbered by the specifics of the event, we were able to discuss how she felt. The healing that took place for both of us was far more valuable than being right about the details of the what actually may have happened.

Many studies show mood affects what we observe and what we remember. Sadness or depression can cause us to be withdrawn and miss something that happens right in front of us, thus little to no memory of it. However, if the event is consistent with our mood, we tend to remember the event better, so if we are sad and something unhappy occurs, we are more likely to remember it.

We tend to remember events when they invoke an emotional response in us, and don’t recollect those with which we don’t have an emotional attachment. In addition, emotional connection is a key factor in how it is remembered. In the example I described above, my daughter had a very strong, negative emotional response and her memory reflected that. The details she recounted were dark and unpleasant.

When I find myself disagreeing with someone about a shared experience, I remind myself to let go being right about facts and instead examine the emotions involved. It has made the difference between enriching a relationship or losing it.

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