article5 min read

How emotions affect memories

‘And suddenly the memory returns.’ – Marcel Proust, À la Recherché du Temps Perdu

We can all remember that time a teacher chastised us, or a boss admonished us, or the first time your parent told you that eating the last of your sister’s birthday chocolate had made them not at all angry, but ‘very, very disappointed in you’. I bet you do, don’t you.

The reason you remember is because you perceived these events as threatening or significant; they produced a fizzing cocktail of emotional responses – fear, anger, shame etc. – and such emotional states facilitate encoding. Our brains are programmed to learn associatively and create poignant memories for potentially adverse or deleterious things so as to avoid them in the future. For example, our brains associate a hot stove with pain and burning so that we don’t touch it and remain safely unburnt in the future. This function is evolutionarily necessary and beneficial, but it can have complex consequences for us in today’s world.

Certain memories are rather innocuous in the grand scheme. A teacher chastising us is one thing; however, a teacher telling you that you will never succeed, that you are useless or worthless, such heartlessness can strongly encode on our brains, and as a memory have a long-term legacy with serious ramifications.

The memory is formed

Why do some moments and memories have such a cataclysmic impact on us? And why do they arise involuntarily, when we least expect it, as with Proust’s causal madeleine, the tea-soaked taste of which dissolves the rational and intellectual borders we construct around unruly memory?

Well, let’s look at the psychology. Our brains have a limbic system or, as some people denote it, a ‘monkey brain’. Now this monkey brain acts like a radar dish, scanning our environment for threats, as we were hardwired to do approximately 60,000 years ago on the Savannahs of Africa.

When our monkey brain detects a threat, information about the threat is encoded on our amygdala – a part of our monkey brain which associates events with any range of feelings and induces emotional responses to those events. For example, when we see a snake we feel fear because our amygdala associates snakes with harm. The stress hormones aroused by the amygdala spur our fight or flight instinct, overriding our thinking and rational brain, forcing us to run away. This hotwired circuit can fire subliminally, and we can be running away before we even realise why we are running and what from.

And suddenly, the memory returns...

If we telescope back out of our Savannah-scanning past and into the present, although the conditions and threats we face may have changed, we can still observe our amygdala functioning.

For example, when a teacher chastises us, or tells us that we cannot succeed, that teacher’s words and image become encoded on our amygdala; they represent a threat to our confidence. Likewise, if a boss shows little compassion and never acknowledges achievements, but instead consistently highlights failures and denounces their team, he will be encoded on his team members’ amygdalae. Whenever the team members are forced to think of the boss, maybe when they’re compelled to approach him about a problem, even if it is urgent, they’ll become fearful and hesitant, two-stepping indecisively in a space outside but a safe distance from the office door. Negative neural circuits are hotwired and override the worker’s rational, reasoning brains, telling them not to ask for help because the boss is intemperate and mean – threatening. Although the same system is at work this is not Proust’s madeleine, but the snake of the Savannah.

Evidently these feelings of apprehension and timidity inculcated by the ‘bad boss’ or ‘bad teacher’ run counter to teamwork and productivity. Like a bad smell, an atmosphere of tension and anxiety hangs around the figure whose lack of compassionate behavior renders them unapproachable – toxic.

It is hard to function under such conditions, so how can we address them?


Well, we feel fear because we are highly sensitised to our surroundings, just like on the Savannah. Not only do our surroundings offer supraliminal triggers, but we are also susceptible to internal, subliminal triggers of negative emotion (flashbacks, dreams, thoughts etc.).

These triggers may be activated by slight changes, unnoticeable and otherwise insignificant things (a madeleine, maybe) so small they are ‘lost in the world’, as Proust puts it. But he does caution: ‘what the memory gives us back under the name of the past is not it’.

If we understand that the reason we feel certain recurrent or resurfacing emotions is because of our associative memory, an associative memory that itself was influenced in its initial encoding by our moodstates at the time of the memory’s inception, then we can see the levels of distorted perception under which the real events of the memory are veiled.

At Positive we encourage individuals to use their rational brain to restore a balance between their highly impulsive and potentially all-too-powerful monkey brain. Under these conditions, we can regain some cognitive control over events. If we train ourselves, as research proves we can, to think mindfully when confronted with adversity, coaching ourselves to perceive and react to problems positively, then we can develop psychological resilience.

Such an adaptive technique can be learnt, and by doing so we can start reacting to threats more consciously and adeptly, restoring a balance between our hearts and minds. A memory, arms bent with baggage, may always return, what matters is how we prime ourselves to cope with its visit

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