How Memories Are Made

This is the second part of a lengthy article by Joseph M. Carver, Ph.D., Psychologist called Emotional Memory Management: Positive Control Over Your Memory. The link to the next segment is included at the close of this segment.

How Memories Are Made…

The brain has specific areas in which information is stored or that operate certain areas of the body. The ability to tap the left forefinger is located in the right side of the brain for example. The left side of the brain contains language capability while the right side contains our ability to view objects in space. Memory for faces is located in the right side of the brain while the name of the individual is located in the left side of the brain. This is why we can recognize an old school mate almost immediately but the brain may require several seconds to obtain the name. If anxious, impairing recall, the name won’t come to us for several minutes after the recognition.

The brain contains multiple memory systems. Remembering how to ride a bicycle, known as procedural or implicit memory, involves a different memory system than remembering the year Columbus discovered America, known as declarative or explicit memory. Studies tell us we can have two types of memory for the same situation, especially if the situation/experience is one associated with strong emotions. For a single experience (traumatic event, good event, emotional experience, etc.) we can have an explicit memory – a memory of the details of the experience, and an implicit memory – a memory of the emotions connected to the experience. Explicit memory has also been called “emotional memory” because it contains the memory of the physiological response at the time of the experience. This physiological response may include increased blood pressure, higher respiration, muscle tension, anxiety, fearfulness, and other reactions associated with fear, terror, fright, or even joy.

In neurological studies, the memory for details (explicit memory) has been linked to the brain structure known as the hippocampus. Memories made by the hippocampus are very much under our conscious control, as when remembering the words to “Jingle Bells” or our birthday. Emotional or unconscious memories are linked to the brain structure known as the amygdala. Some of these unconscious (out of our conscious control or not purposefully remembered) are procedural as when the brain memorizes how to ride a bicycle – you don’t have to think about it – you simply hop on and ride away. Other emotional memories are a record of the physiological/emotional response we have experienced during an event.

When we experience a very emotional event, the brain records not only the details of the experience (where we were, when, who was there, what happened, etc.) but the emotions we 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 two systems in the brain and stored in two separate areas of the brain.

When we remember horrible or traumatic events, the brain often remembers both the details and emotional memory at the same time. If we remember the details of being assaulted, we will also experience the feelings we had at that time – the increased heart rate, fearfulness, panic, and desperation.

As we will soon review, the brain has the ability to remember the details and the emotions both on purpose and by accident. The brain also has the ability to remember one part of the memory without another part surfacing. As we go through life, the brain may also have an experience that prompts an emotional memory but does not bring up the details of the experience.

Detail memory will often see someone at a distance and offer a “best guess” as to their identity. As the person moves closer, the “best guess” offered by the brain may be true or false. Emotional memory works the same way, looking at a current situation/experience and offering a “best guess” by remembering a previous emotional situation. This is the reality of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and emotional trauma. We may emotionally relive a combat memory when we hear a car backfire or emotionally feel as if we are being assaulted if someone jokingly grabs us from behind.

It is hoped that this article will explain how emotional memory works and how it can be managed for those who are haunted by the experiences of their past.

Daily Memory

Throughout the day, we experience a variety of good, bad, and in-between experiences. A specific memory area of the brain will hold memories for about five days, to see if they are important. Memories that are not important are usually “dumped” or erased after the five day waiting period. These erased memories can never be recovered. As an example, we don’t remember how many times we turn on a light unless it shocks us or blows up.

We can store and create memory with data only, as when memorizing spelling words or learning math. The brain will memorize with frequent repetition or constant use. However, if a memory file containing only data is not frequently used, the memory slowly fades away. Examples: 1) Can you calculate square root by hand? 2) Do you remember the names of all your high school teachers or classmates? In the second question, chances are you can remember those who also have an EM file!

Most of us cannot remember our many trips to the grocery store or service station. However, we will always remember times which have a good or bad value such as the time a store was robbed when we were there, the time an old lady threatened us over a can of green beans, or the time we spilled gasoline all over our clothes in one of those self-serve pumps. We don’t remember washing our car unless that spray wand at the car wash facility got loose and just about gave us a skull fracture. In short, if a daily memory does not have a strong good or bad emotional value, it is faded out.

As years pass, we build up quite a file system. We build up a collection of good memories and bad memories. Our brain has the ability to pull 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 file:

  1. Name some songs by the Beatles.
  2. Where were you when the space shuttle exploded?
  3. Where were you when John F. Kennedy was assassinated?
  4. Who was your favorite high school teacher?

As you can see, your brain instantly pulls a file when a question is asked. Importantly, you have no control over what file is pulled, how fast it is pulled, or what is in the file. For example, younger adults and teenagers may have no “file” on the Kennedy assassination. They were not around at the time or old enough to make a memory of that experience. As an additional example, every older adult remembers almost every detail of where he/she was when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1949.

Those with emotional memories can not only give you the exact details, but a variety of random and irrelevant details surrounding the event. This is how powerful “emotional memory” (EM) can be.

Those of you with a “Pearl Harbor” file might have rapidly noted that the above date of the attack was incorrect, it should have been 1941. If you had a file for that date in history, you might have immediately noted the error. When we have no file however, our brain does not alert us to errors. This example is used to illustrate just how fast the brain can not only react, but notice mistakes. This is another automatic brain activity.

How Files Affect Us…

An emotional memory file is a neurological/brain activity. The brain makes, organizes, sorts, and controls it’s files. Remember, the file contains two parts, information and emotion. After years of neuropsychological research, we have come to the following rules regarding file control. Each rule will be explained in detail:

[The next segment begins with Rule: The Brain Operates on Chemicals.]

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