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You’re Always More Than You Remember

State-Dependent Learning and Recall

When feeling helpless and dependent, we forget that, most of the time, we're fairly competent, creative, and growth-oriented. It is just that, forgetting; no matter how helpless we may feel, we are, most of the time, quite competent to conduct our daily affairs and solve most of the problems that confront us. What makes us forget that we do it most of the time is a phenomenon of brain processing known as state-dependent learning and recall: Information learned in one mood or emotional state is most likely to be recalled in a similar mood or emotional state.

That's why, when resentful at a spouse, you can remember everything he he/she did wrong since 1941 but can recall only nice things when you feel sweet and loving. It is why, when depressed, we tend to think of only sad things, and when we're happy, we tend to think of only happy things. When we're angry, we tend to think of only offensive things, and when compassionate, we recall our more humane experiences.

Negative emotional states are especially susceptible to state-dependent recall, due to their more urgent survival importance. If a saber-toothed tiger swatted at early humans from the side, that information was necessary for survival. However, it wasn't necessary to have it in consciousness all the time, where the intensity of the memory would all but preclude other important tasks that require conscious attention. (The flashbacks of PTSD result from a breakdown of state-dependent recall.) So the information is "filed" under fight-or-flight arousal and (absent PTSD symptoms) recalled only during similar arousal.

This is generally an efficient way for the brain to process information. But the survival emotions – anger and fear – are processed in milliseconds (thousandths of a second) and cannot be selective in recall. Hence, we tend to feel the urgency of attack every time something happens to stimulate anger-arousal. This is helpful if the stimulus is really a saber-toothed tiger, but not so great if it's just a two-year old in a temper tantrum or a distracted spouse or rude driver on the highway.

State-dependent recall keeps us in whatever modality of self we are in, simply because the brain is accessing only those memories associated with the current emotional state. When feeling helpless, it seems that we've always been helpless. When feeling dependent, it seems that we were always dependent on someone else (or some substance). When feeling really confident, we're apt to forget relevant mistakes we've made in the past. When depressed, it seems that we never felt well. When feeling destructive, it seems that we've always been angry or bitter.

The best way to attenuate the negative effects of state dependent recall is to recognize how it works. We must realize that feelings-states are temporary and, unless we feed them with justifications, transitory.

When stuck in state-dependent recall, try consciously to recall other emotional states, preferably those that felt the most authentic, i.e. when you were acting according to your deepest values.

Allowed to run on automatic pilot, state-dependent recall can greatly distort thoughts, feelings, and behavior and make us highly reactive to our environment. Mindfully directing emotional states puts us in more firmly in charge of our lives and our fortunes.


More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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