“I can still remember everything! ” she told the reporter. “I walked through the front door, my stepfather called me to come to the television – something horrible had happened – I ran upstairs and saw the first tower crushing, broadcasted by CNN. I couldn’t believe it and for some reason had to start laughing, it just didn’t seem like reality. My stepfather was shocked when he saw me laughing. He told me that this might be the beginning of a third world war. Only my stepfather and I were in the house.
He was lying on the sofa with colourful shorts and a black “I miss Jerry” t-shirt. I was wearing beige trousers and a green top”. Why could this person remember everything in such detail? Many would claim that this was because the news had a very strong emotional impact. A “flashbulb memory” was created (Brown and Kulik, 1977). This essay will discuss the ways in which people’s emotions have an influence on their memory by looking at flashbulb memories, repression, perceptual defence, mood and thought congruity and mood-state dependent memory.
Often people have very vivid and detailed memories of the circumstances they were in when they first heard of an exceptionally emotional event such as a natural disaster, the death of an internationally famous person, or an invasion of one country by another. Brown and Kulik (1977) called these kinds of memories flashbulb memories and claimed, that they are qualitatively different to normal memories in respect to their longevity, accuracy and use of a special neural mechanism.
Although there is no agreement between different cognitive psychologists on whether flashbulb memories are really qualitatively different (McCloskey, Wible and Cohen (1988) for example claim that they are simply stronger versions of ordinary memories), Bohannon (1988) found that one of the factors that influences good long-term memory is a strong emotional reaction to a stimuli. Although a strong emotional impact can enhance memory, it can also be the cause for the opposite to occur: forgetting or repression.
The essence of repression lies simply in the function of rejecting and keeping something out of consciousness” (Freud, 1915, p. 86). From his clinical experiences, Freud established a theory explaining the forgetting of some very threatening, anxiety provoking or emotionally charged stimuli. He claimed that these are forgotten as the ego protects itself by denying acknowledgement of these stimuli on the conscious level. They are repressed and stored in the unconscious, where they are difficult to access in conscious awareness.
Although Freud’s ideas about repression have been difficult to prove in normal forgetting and under laboratory conditions, experimental evidence confirming repression (see Holmes, 1990, for a review) has been developed. Especially in neurosis and pathological forgetting, the Freudian approach or repression of very emotional events provides a good explanation of the patients’ behaviour. People that have hysterical amnesia sometimes walk around seemingly unaware of their identity, there origin and current location. The main cause of this is that they are going through an emotional crisis in their life. It is as if life has become intolerable and the only way of coping is to cease to be themselves, at least temporarily (Baddeley, 1995, p. 134) Perceptual defence is closely related to the experimental evidence of repression. Emotionally charged stimuli (e. g. taboo or obscene words) are not perceived as well as neutral stimuli are and their recognition takes significantly more time. Research done by Hardy and Legge (1968) for example showed that the subliminal presentation of emotionally loaded words has inhibitory effects on perceptual learning.
These inhibitory effects are likely responsible for producing the perceptual defence effect. Both repression and perceptual defence demonstrate, that although very emotional events can at times increase memory, as in the creation of flashbulb memories, they can also cause the opposite – forgetting, ignoring or repressing. Let us look at other ways in which emotions influence what people remember. Research suggests that it is easier to remember information when one’s mood or emotional state matches one’s emotional states when one originally learned the material.
This is called mood-state-dependent memory. It can be tested in the laboratory in the following way: First different kinds of mood inductions (the most famous one being Velten’s mood-induction technique, 1968) are used to produce a happy or sad mood in subjects. Then a list of items is memorised. At a later stage, when experiencing the same or a different emotional state, the items of the list are recalled. If, for example, the items are learnt whilst in a sad mood, it will prove easier to remember the information when feeling sad again and more difficult when feeling happy.
Bower explained this occurrence with his network theory of emotion (Gilligan ; Bower, 1984). According to this theory, emotions are units or nodes in a semantic network, which are connected to many related ideas, physiological systems, events, and muscular and expressive patterns. At the time of learning associations are formed between the activated nodes representing the to-be-remembered items and the emotion node or nodes activated because of the subjects mood state. When trying to remember something, the mood state at that time activates the appropriate emotion node.
This activation then spreads from that emotion node to the various nodes associated with it. So if there is a match between the mood state at learning and at recall, the activation of the nodes of to-be-remembered items is increased, which enhances recall. The emotional state a person is in will influence what the person will remember. Therefore this gives us an increased understanding of how things are best learnt and retrieved and could prove to become more and more influential in the ways people (students for example) approach learning.
Mood congruity is a further way in which emotions affect what people remember. Research suggests that people remember different things according to the emotional state they are in. When, for example, a person is in a sad mood, he/she is inclined to remember negative information much better than positive information. People that are in a good mood, however, remember positive information better. Gilligan and Bower (1984) explain this by stating that emotionally loaded material is associated more strongly with its related emotion nodes than with any other emotion node.
To-be-remembered material that is similar with the current mood state links up with this associative network of similar information, and this leads to the extensive or elaborate encoding of the to-be-remembered material. Although it might be expected that mood-congruity would increase the stronger the current mood is because the spread of activation from the activated emotion node to other related nodes would increase in line with the intensity with which emotion was experienced. Yet, when a person is experiencing a very negative mood, the opposite can occur.
A very sad mood, however, may lead to a focus on internal information relating to failure, fatigue etc. , which could inhibit processing of all kinds of external stimuli whether or not they are congruent with the sad mood. So remembering is inhibited, if someone is in a very strong negative emotional state. Thought congruity occurs when a person’s mood state is similar to his/her interpretations, thoughts and judgements (see Blaney, 1986, for a review). Thought congruity can be tested in the following way: First subjects are presented a list of pleasant and unpleasant words. Then mood induction is done.
After pleasant mood induction pleasant words are often recalled better. After unpleasant mood induction however, unpleasant words are remembered (Eysenck and Keane, 1995). Clark and Teasdale (1982) tested depressed patients at two different times. They were more depressed at one time than at the other. More depressing memories and fewer happy memories were recalled when they were more depressed. It is difficult for depressed people to come out of their depression as their depressed emotional states make it difficult for them to retrieve pleasant memories (Teasdale & Fogarty, 1979).
At the same time there is a higher recall of depressing memories. This further intensifies their depression and lowers their self-esteem. In treatments of depression that have a cognitive approach the person is taught how to access less depressing memories (Baddeley, 1999). Depressed people learn to brake out of the vicious circle thought congruity causes in increasing their depression. Although in most people thought congruity influences what they will remember, in some cases it is inhibited to avoid too much pain.
Williams and Broadbent (1986) compared the extent to which thought congruity occurred in people who had recently attempted suicide versus normal controls. Autobiographical memories had to be retrieved to positive and negative cue words. As expected the suicide attempters were slower than normal controls to retrieve personal memories to the positive cue worlds. However they were no faster than normals in thinking of negative personal experiences. In this case thought congruity is inhibited. This could be explained in terms of a psychoanalytic approach.
As it would be so painful for the suicide attempters to retrieve unpleasant personal memories, they might repress these and make an effort to inhibit the retrieval of such memories. Both in thought congruity and in the explicit inhibition of it, it is clear that emotions again play an important role in what people remember. To conclude it should be pointed out that the above information on flashbulb memories, repression, perceptual defence, thought/mood congruity and mood-state dependent memory is an apparent indication of the many ways in which emotions influence what a person will remember.
Although research in this field has been increasing there are still some cognitive psychologists such as Gardner who claim that an emotion may be a factor “which is important for cognitive functioning but whose inclusion at this point would unnecessarily complicate the cognitive-scientific enterprise”. (Gardner, 1985, p. 6). Hopefully this approach will increasingly be transcended and further research, both in laboratories and in everyday life will be led.