Emotions and your memory

How emotional brain states improve memory recall

In toward a quest of understanding, I wrote about the surprising effect our emotions have on our moral judgements. In that piece, I presented an argument that attempted to severe the connection between knowing what is right and wrong (or even between what is true and what is not) and our outward judgement on what is right and wrong. Based on the evidence, one could make a compelling case that our life compass is formed primarily by our emotions, what tribe we belong to, and our narrow life experience and secondarily by the rational side of our nature.

Putting emotions in the driver seat and reason in the back goes against centuries of high regard for our ability to reason in Western culture. One of the foundations of modern American individualism is respect for every individual’s ability to behave rationally. If a society is going to be built around the individual, then it may be valuable to question our assumptions about the nature of an individual. That is why I think it is so fascinating to think about different ways in which our devalued emotional brain can influence our supposed rational brain (note that this may be a false dichotomy and that I am not claiming to value one over the other).

One important aspect of our cognitive experience is our memories. Vivid, detailed memories are encoded for only a very small subset of our experience and so what determines what gets encoded and what doesn’t?

Recent evidence in Nature Neuroscience point to our emotions as once again being in the drivers seat.

It has long been known our recollection of emotionally arousing events such as a car crash or graduation ceremony is stronger than our recollection of more neutral events. I have a very vivid memory, for example, of my father leaving for a military deployment over 15 years ago yet I can’t remember what it was like to eat my breakfast two days ago.

However, the power of emotional brain states goes further than that. It turns out that emotional brain states can retroactively influence our memories for both preceding and proceeding neutral experiences.

In other words, recollection of events that are seemingly neutral, such as wiping a kitchen counter clean, is stronger when an emotional stimulus is presented tens of minutes before. Researchers in one study later confirmed that this was because an emotional brain state (shown below by warm color activation of the amygdala and other structures) carried over when a neutral stimulus was presented—thus possibly enhancing the encoding of that stimulus.

In this figure, the number “r” refers to the extent to which the two brain states were correlated. The emotional brain state (top, red) carried over when the neutral stimulus was presented. This ‘emotional brain state’ could explain why this neutral stimulus had greater recollection.

So far we have reasons to suspect that our emotional brain drives two aspects of our human nature: our moral compass and also our memory recall. What other areas of our nature could be under the dominion of our affect? How is our modern world with our constant inundation of emotionally charged media demanding our attention affecting our brains? Maybe it’s time to take our emotional brain more seriously than our rational brain in our society—especially as we try to think of ways to make our world a better place to live. The answers are unclear but interesting nonetheless.

Thanks for reading.

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