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Chapter: Psychology: Prologue: What Is Psychology?

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Cognitive Influences on Emotional Memory

It is clear, then, that our understanding of emotional memory must include its biological basis—the neural mechanisms that promote emotional memory, and the evolutionary heritage that makes it easier for us to form some memories than oth-ers.

Cognitive Influences on Emotional Memory

It is clear, then, that our understanding of emotional memory must include its biological basis—the neural mechanisms that promote emotional memory, and the evolutionary heritage that makes it easier for us to form some memories than oth-ers. But our theorizing also needs to include the ways that people think about the emotional events they experience: What do they pay attention to during the experi-ence? How do they make sense of the emotional event, and how does this interpre-tation shape their memory?

The role of attention is evident, for example, in the fact that emotional memory tends to be uneven—some aspects of the event are well remembered, other aspects are neglected. Thus, during a robbery, witnesses might focus on the robbers themselves— what they did, what they said (Figure P.9). As a result, the witnesses might remember these “central” aspects of the event later on but might have little memory for other aspects of the event—such as what the other witnesses were doing. In this regard, memory is very different from, say, the sort of record created by a videocamera. If the camera is turned on and functioning properly, it records everything in front of the lens. Memory, in contrast, is selective; it records the bits that someone was paying attention to, but nothing more. As a result, memory—for emotional events and in general—is invariably incomplete. It can sometimes omit information that is crucial for some purposes (e.g., information the police might need when investigating the robbery).


Memory is also different from a videorecord in another way. A video-camera is a passive device, simply recording what is in front of the lens. In contrast, when you “record” information into memory, you actively interpret the event, integrating information gleaned from the event with other knowledge. Most of the time, this is a good thing because it creates a rich and sophisticated memory trace that preserves the event in combination with your impressions of the event as well as links to other related episodes. However, this active interpretation of an event also has a downside: People often lose track of the source of particular bits of information in memory. Specifically, they lose track of which bits are drawn from the original episode they experienced and which bits they supplied through their understanding of the episode.

 

In one study, for example, people spent a few minutes in a profes-sor ’s office; then, immediately afterward, they were taken out of the office and asked to describe the room they had just been in. Roughly a third of these people clearly remembered seeing shelves full of books, even though no books were visible in the office (Brewer & Treyens, 1981). In this case, the participants had “supplemented” their memory of the office, relying on the common knowledge that professors’ offices usually do hold a lot of books. They then lost track of the source of this “sup-plement”—and so lost track of the fact that the books came from their own beliefs and not from this particular experience.

How does this pattern apply to emotional memories? We have already said that emotional events tend to be remembered vividly: Often, we feel like we can “relive” the distant event, claiming that we recall the event “as though it were yesterday.” But as compelling as they are, these memories—like any memories—are open to error. In one study, researchers surveyed college students a few days after the tragic explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. Where were the students when they heard about the explosion? Who brought them the news? Three years later, the researchers questioned the same students again. The students confidently reported that, of course, they clearly remembered this horrible event. Many students reported that the memory was still painful, and they could recall their sense of shock and sadness upon hearing the news. Even so, their recollections of this event were, in many cases, mis-taken. One student was certain she was sitting in her dorm room watching TV when the news was announced; she recalled being deeply upset and telephoning her par-ents. It turns out, though, that she had heard the news in a religion class when some people walked into the classroom and started talking about the explosion (Neisser & Harsh, 1992).

Similar results have been recorded for many other events. For example, surveys of current college students usually show that they vividly remember where they were when they heard the news, of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and how they heard it. When we take steps to check on these memories, however, we often find substantial errors. Many of the students are completely confident—but mistaken— about how they learned of the attacks, who brought them the news, what their initial responses were (e.g., P. Lee & Brown, 2004; Pezdek, 2004). Similar memory errors can be documented even in George W. Bush, U.S. president at the time of the attacks (Figure P.10). Bush confidently recalled where he was when he heard the news, and what he was doing at the time—but his recollection turned out to be mistaken (D. Greenberg, 2004). Being president, it seems, is no protection against memory errors.


What’s going on in all of these cases? When we experience a trau-matic event—like the Challenger explosion, or the September 11 attacks—we’re likely to focus on the core meaning of the event and pay less attention to our own personal circumstances. This means that we will record into memory relatively little information about those circumstances. Later, when we try to recall the event, we’re forced to reconstruct the setting as best we can. This reconstruction process is generally accurate, but certainly open to error. As a result, our recollection of emotional events can be vivid, detailed, compelling—and wrong.

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