You can experience many different emotions — 27 in all, according to some experts — ranging from joy to irritation to shame, along with everything in between.
Absolutely, some of these emotions evoke more pleasant feelings than others. Still, there’s no such thing as a “good” or “bad” emotion. Every emotion has its role in a healthy inner life.
Emotions serve as subjective reactions to objective events. For example, two people can watch the same football game and have completely different responses to the outcome. One person may feel ecstatic, the other devastated.
Your emotions also play an important part in memory processes. For starters, the way you react to a specific event or situation can affect not only how well you commit what happened to memory, but also how well you recall it later.
Read on to learn how emotions influence the memory-making process, along with what you can do about it.
Strong emotions can either enhance or suppress your memory, depending on the situation and the emotions it provokes.
Emotions affect the details you store in memory
Emotional arousal refers to feelings that “wake you up” and make you more reactive to your environment. Anger, excitement, fear — emotions like these can quicken your pulse and sharpen your focus.
In an aroused state, your brain streamlines its attention to only the most important stimuli around you. Details get priority if:
- They’re easy to perceive: You’re more likely to notice a loud crash over a muffled whisper, or bright neon letters over small, faded writing.
- They involve emotion: In a car crash, you may give all your attention to a hurt family member, not the stranger in the other car.
- They relate to your goals: If your partner starts choking during dinner, you’ll probably focus on the CPR steps needed to save them, not the taste of burnt lasagna in your mouth.
Emotional arousal hardwires these salient details into your mind, making them the foundation of what you later remember about the event. The stimuli you ignored in the heat of the moment? Well, you might find those much harder to recall — you don’t remember what you don’t notice, after all.
Emotional content is easier to recall
Memories of emotional events are often
From an evolutionary standpoint, emotions offer cues that help you avoid future threats and successfully reproduce. A fond memory of your first kiss can motivate you to find a romantic partner so you can experience that happiness again. This goal, incidentally, raises your odds of having children and passing on your genes.
In contrast, your first encounter with a toothbrush probably won’t offer any game-changing insight for your future self. The act of brushing your teeth certainly plays an important role in your health and overall chances of survival, but the details of how the bristles felt and what the toothpaste tasted like don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things.
Plus, it’s an act you repeat every day, at least twice. So, your brain is less likely to spend the resources to convert that event into a core memory.
From a neurological standpoint, emotional events are easier to remember because they activate your amygdala and hippocampus at almost exactly the same time. The emotion-focused amygdala helps the hippocampus
Stress affects both memory storage and recall
Emotions like embarrassment or rage can ramp up your levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol triggers
The first process, which lasts for about half an hour after the stressor occurs, encourages the neurons in your amygdala and hippocampus to be extra responsive. This lowers the threshold for stimuli to be encoded or retrieved from memory, making it easier to form and access memories related to the stimuli.
The second, slower process, winds your brain down after its period of hyperactivity. About an hour after the stressor, the neurons in your amygdala and hippocampus become less responsive than usual. It becomes harder to make or recall memories with these resting neurons.
Here’s a real-world example: If you find yourself stressing about a final exam in the 20 minutes before it, you may recall the information you studied more clearly.
On the other hand, maybe you spend the whole day panicking about the test. By the time you sit down at your desk, your hippocampus and amygdala will be exhausted, and you’ll have a harder time remembering everything you learned.
Stress can also affect the things you remember
It’s not uncommon to have a harder time remembering things unrelated to a stressor.
Say you spend the last half hour before a parent’s visit tense and overwhelmed, running through your mental checklist to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything. You may not recall (or register) your roommate saying they left the rent check on the hall table.
Understanding how emotions affect your memory can give you insight into your current state of mind.
Emotions don’t happen in isolation
Say your favorite artist has two equally sad songs on their album. If you were listening to one of those songs while your ex dumped you, listening to that song again will likely leave you feeling lonelier and gloomier than the other song.
This holds true even if the song you were listening to during the breakup wasn’t actually all that sad. Maybe it’s actually fairly uplifting. Even so, the memory of the breakup can shift your reaction and make it an upsetting song. In short, your past emotions about a given stimulus can majorly influence your present feelings about that stimulus.
While memory can make any emotion “contagious” in this way, this phenomenon appears more powerful for social emotions, like tenderness, and negative or unwanted emotions, like melancholy.
Emotions can skew your perspective
When you’re young, your memory tends to have a negativity bias. In other words, you’re more likely to recall negative events, like mistakes, arguments, or losses. Your mind may also highlight painful emotions, like betrayal or jealousy.
When you’re just starting out in life, plenty of unknowns lurk on the horizon, and some of them might represent potential threats. So, keeping information you could use to solve — or better yet, avoid — future problems might pay off.
As you age, your developmental needs may shift from exploring the world to leaving behind a legacy. Your memory may then flip toward more of a
Consequently, memories featuring affection, pride, and nostalgia may get more priority.
Negativity and positivity biases both have their purpose, but they can cause problems when they get too powerful.
- Too much of a negativity bias may contribute to depression. If you only recall the worst parts of your past, your whole life may seem more joyless and bleak than it really felt at the time.
- Too much of a positivity bias may lead you to forget the lessons you learned from past missteps and mistakes. You might be more vulnerable to scams or manipulation, for instance, or fail to recognize patterns of toxic behavior in relationships.
Chronic stress can damage your memory
Time determines how acute stress affects your memory.
Remember, it’s easier to encode memory immediately after a stressful event. But after an hour or so, your amygdala and hippocampus need to rest, and encoding memory becomes more difficult.
But what happens if the stressor is ongoing? Put simply, if you always feel scared or frustrated, those emotions no longer make an event special, so they don’t offer useful information for your brain. Those emotions
Furthermore, the constant onslaught of cortisol exhausts your memory-making neurons, making it harder to form memories in general. That’s one explanation for the link between conditions like depression and anxiety and poorer memory performance.
That said, treating the source of the stress, or any other mental health symptoms you experience, can make a difference — for your overall well-being and your memory.
When intense feelings distort your memory and make it harder to recall important information, taking steps to regulate your emotions can help minimize the damage.
Helpful strategies include:
- lowering your stress levels
- practicing mindfulness, which can help you fully experience emotions in the moment
- cognitive reappraisal, or examining thoughts in order to get some new perspective on them
- avoiding rumination, or getting stuck in loops of painful memories
You can harness your emotions to enhance your memory. One small
You can try this yourself at home too. In fact, if you’ve ever kept a gratitude journal, you’ve already done it. But you don’t have to stick to journaling about gratitude. It may also have benefit to jot down something that made you laugh or smile, or a mistake you forgave — even one of your own mistakes.
Do cognitive enhancing drugs work?
Prescription medications, like Adderall and Ritalin, may help improve memory and attention, especially if you live with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Other cognitive enhancing drugs and supplements exist, but human research on their effects on long-term memory remains limited. Plus, most of these drugs limit their scope to short-term memory.
Keep in mind, too, that medications and supplements typically don’t address any of the emotional concerns disrupting your memory in the first place.
Practically everyone forgets things from time to time.
But if you consistently lose your keys, miss appointments, or forget words in conversation, you may want to check in with your doctor. Trouble with memory doesn’t always relate to emotions, and frequent forgetfulness could have a more serious underlying cause. A healthcare professional can offer more support in determining what’s behind it.
When memory issues do relate to emotional distress or mental health symptoms, addressing those underlying concerns can often make a big difference.
Generally speaking, addressing persistent emotional distress involves some kind of cognitive therapy, which focuses on your thoughts and your responses to them.
Evidence suggests therapy can:
- reduce negativity bias and make it easier to recall pleasant memories as well as painful ones
- help you remember your life as specific moments as opposed to a vague, timeless blur
- level out your mood to prevent cortisol spikes
Antidepressants offer another option to consider. Mental health conditions like depression can stall the growth of neurons in your hippocampus. Antidepressants boost the growth of these neurons, which could help
Emotions matter, when it comes to memory. They might help sharpen details of key events, but they can also blur your recollection, depending on the context.
If you notice lingering mental or emotional symptoms that seem tied to difficulties with memory, a therapist or other mental health professional can offer more support with navigating and regulating difficult or unwanted emotions.
Managing emotional distress more effectively may help improve our memory and your overall well-being.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.