What's Emotional Memory?

25 April, 2021
All your experiences and everything that affects you emotionally leave a mark on your brain. This is what we call emotional memory.

You might think that your memory only involves things that have happened to you, like your memories themselves and your experiences. However, memory goes far beyond this. It actually also encompasses your physiological and emotional responses associated with those memories and experiences. This is emotional memory.

Your memories are impregnated with many details. These details concern each moment or situation in question and its associated sensations. In addition, what you felt at that moment, and even what you thought. In fact, your memories are immersed in all of these elements. You can’t separate them from your emotions.

Therefore, both your emotions and memory are interrelated in your emotional memory.

A woman thinking.

How are memory and emotions related?

You remember intensely emotional experiences far more than those that meant nothing to you. As a matter of fact, your memory is intrinsically linked to your emotions. In other words, the more emotional the experience, the more you’ll remember it. This happens with both positive and negative emotions, provided they’re intense.

Another reason why you remember emotional circumstances more readily is that you tend to think back to them more frequently. This strengthens your relevant brain circuits. Indeed, the more you remember something, the more you reinforce that memory. Therefore, the more you’re able to access it.

“Life isn’t what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”

-Gabriel García Márquez-

Emotional memory, what is it?

Emotional memory consists of learning, storing, and remembering the events associated with your physiological and emotional responses. Indeed, your emotional memory remembers the event, the emotion you felt, and how your body responded on a physiological level.

Your emotional memory remembers even if you forget

Emotional memory is a very specific kind of memory. In fact, it can last even if you’ve completely forgotten the event in question. For example, consider how you acquire a phobia. Imagine that a dog bit you when you were young. Consequently, you developed a phobia of dogs.

Over the years, you probably forgot about the actual event. That’s because you were young when it happened. However, you’d still have the phobia. Because, even though you wouldn’t remember the event, your emotional memory would.

Therefore, although you wouldn’t remember what happened that day, or at least not all of the details, your body would. It wouldn’t remember it in a conscious way but it would recall the physiological sensations associated with the moment the dog bit you. For example, your increased breathing rate, discomfort, anxiety, sweating, pain, etc. In fact, this is what would maintain your phobia, even though you forgot the event on a conscious level.

Remembering what happened and how you felt

Konstantin Stanislavski was a famous theater actor. He gave his name to a specific theatrical interpretation technique. With this strategy, actors remember certain events in their own life in order to evoke the particular emotions of a character they’re portraying.

As we mentioned above, when you think of certain events, you tend to remember what you felt, especially if those emotions were intense. However, this also works the other way around. In other words, if you remember or experience certain emotions, you’ll think of the situations where you felt that emotion.

For this reason, some psychological theories suggest that a person with depression tends to remember more of the sad and negative events in their life. Therefore, this feeds back into their depression.

A woman with a hand over her face.

Emotional memory, what exactly do you remember?

Why do you remember situations that have had more of an emotional impact on you? What exactly do you remember? As a matter of fact, it’s likely that what you remember is the psychological state you found yourself in when you had the experience.

This is what emotional memory is all about. It involves “remembering” how the body and the emotion you felt were activated. We call this implicit memory. It’s unlike other types of memory, like the autobiographical kind. This is because you’re actually remembering the responses triggered in your body at the time.

What do you remember about your life?

As you’ve seen, emotional memory concerns how you felt during certain experiences. Even though you may have forgotten the experiences, you still remember the emotion.

To give you an example, if you were to think back over your life, what do you remember most vividly? Undoubtedly your emotional memories. They certainly won’t be those that had no effect on you at all. In fact, it’s probably not possible to really remember something that didn’t make you feel anything, as those types of memories don’t leave a mark on either your brain or soul.

  • Bisquerra, R., Punset, E., Gea, A., & Palau, V. (2015). Universo de emociones. Valencia: PalauGea.
  • D’Argembeau, A., Comblain, C. & Van der Linden, M. (2002). Phenomenal characteristics of autobiographical memories for positive, negative, and neutral events. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17(3): pp. 281 – 294.
  • Morgado, I. (2005). Psicobiología del aprendizaje y la memoria: fundamentos y avances recientes. Rev Neurol, 40 (5): 289-297.