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Chapter: Psychology: Prologue: What Is Psychology?

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A Developmental Perspective on Emotional Memory

Clearly, then, if we are going to understand how people remember emotional events, we need to consider many factors and take several different perspectives.

A Developmental Perspective on Emotional Memory

Clearly, then, if we are going to understand how people remember emotional events, we need to consider many factors and take several different perspectives. Some of these perspectives are biological, including a microscopic view of specific changes taking place in the brain when memories are formed and a macroscopic view emphasizing the influence of evolution on brain function. A cognitive perspec-tive focuses on which aspects of a situation people pay attention to and what kinds of knowledge they merge with their memories of an experience. A social perspective leads us to ask how and why people share their memories, and how such interac-tions affect what is remembered. We also need to think about the ways that the cul-tural context influences the sharing of memories and shapes how someone reacts to (and recalls) the target event.

Yet another perspective is developmental: How do children learn to recall emotional events? How do they learn the appropriate way, in their culture, to report on events? How accurate or complete is their recollection? These questions have significant scien-tific interest as well as considerable practical importance. It’s increasingly common for children to provide evidence for legal disputes, including divorce proceedings or trials involving allegations of child abuse. In these settings, it is crucial to have some guide-lines about how best to draw accurate information from children—and how to evaluate the information children provide.

Fortunately for the courts, children’s memories of events are often quite accurate and relatively complete. But children are also highly suggestible—so, when asking them about past events, it is crucial not to convey expectations that could influence their answers. In many cases, children also do not understand which aspects of an event are likely to be rel-evant to their audience, so they often need guidance in choosing what to report.

One line of research, for example, has examined how children remember events that are not just emotional, but traumatic. Obviously, we cannot create these events in the laboratory—that would be ethically repugnant. But outside of the lab, children some-times need medical procedures that can be deeply upsetting or uncomfortable—includ-ing procedures that involve medical professionals closely examining and manipulating the young child’s genitals. How will they remember these procedures later?

Evidence suggests that children generally remember these medical procedures quite well. If questioned carefully and neutrally, they can report many aspects of the event.

The one group of children least likely to recall the event is, not surprisingly, those who are very young—for example, children under three years old. These children probably lack the intellectual and neural capacities to establish clear and explicit memories of any sort; and so, inevitably, they cannot recall medical trauma.

However, these painful memories are susceptible to the same influences as other memories. With time, even traumatic memories fade and, as a result, are more and more open to errors. The child may even recall elements of the event that never happened at all. Likewise, if a child is questioned in a suggestive manner, her recollection can be sub-stantially altered—aspects of the event may change, or new (fictional) experiences might be introduced into the episode.


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