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Emotional Memories: When People and Events Remain With You

Recalling the past can awaken an emotional response.

Remembering an event, a situation, or a person can evoke a shiver of excitement, the heat of anger, or the anguish of grief. Although emotion that is activated by a memory may not be felt as intensely as the actual experience, the recall can be enjoyable or painful nonetheless. Emotional memory adds credibility to the notion that thoughts can trigger emotion just as the activation of emotion can create cognitions (Lerner & Keltner, 2000; Lewis, 2008).

How fortunate that the mind can summon emotional memories of exciting and unsullied love, pride in endeavors, or joy that was felt at an amazing moment in time. You may muse about the past because you want to recreate a satisfying emotional experience, if only fleetingly, through a daydream. But memories can also activate more negatively experienced emotions such as anger, shame, jealousy, envy, disgust, or guilt.

Unfortunately, such memories of things we'd rather forget seem to have greater intensity than the pleasant ones. In response to a cue in the present that evokes an emotional memory, anger, for example, can occupy your thoughts in ways that may seem far more consuming and compelling than can the pleasurable recall of a past loving relationship. Anger makes you want to take action to protect yourself, to retaliate, or to right whatever wrong was left unresolved; whereas recall of a past love is less likely to incite a need to respond.

Most emotional memories are the result of cued recall. A certain date may trigger an emotional memory such as in the anniversary of a loss. But also anything that is connected to your senses may be a cue that can ignite emotional recall. While walking past the perfume counter of a department store you may remember someone who smelled delicious, or, on the other hand, a person whose over-use of scented products was repugnant to you. A certain place may evoke a memory of being there in the past and the pleasant or unpleasant emotions attached to that experience. Your visceral response to a particular song may be a reminder of the emotion you felt toward someone with whom it is associated.

Holding onto certain possessions may be a way to activate the recall of emotion. Yet it is not simply emotional memory that is triggered by an object but also the connection you had with the person who is represented by it. For example, I happened to open a box that had been stored away for many years and found something that had belonged to my mother. Along with elation, momentary sadness was activated in me, as though I had somehow connected with her again. In a study of cherished objects as memorabilia, researchers found that most of the identified cherished objects were cherished for reasons other than their value as inducers of reminiscence and as specifically as reconstructive symbols (Sherman, 1991).

Discarding certain relics of the past may serve to deactivate recall and symbolically dispose of the person. When relationships are over people sometimes want to discard vestiges of the past that represent their attachment to another person, including memorabilia, gifts, photographs, and anything else that can potentially trigger once lovely emotional memories that have now become tainted.

Having a great memory for recalling events may not be a virtue and instead may require that you control an efficient memory system that delivers information in the form of memories that may interfere with current goals (Levy & Anderson, 2002). So if everything seems to trigger a memory for you, especially ones that activate emotional responses, you can become derailed from the path you are taking and instead focused on the memories.

Imagine, for example, every time you pursue a romantic relationship you are reminded of incidents in which you felt betrayed or hurt. As a result, you may try to ignore the memory or refocus attention—a response-override situation that requires executive control to stop retrieval itself—but such suppression of memories and controlling the direction of thought also interferes with their recall when they are desired (Levy & Anderson, 2002). Thus, there may be times when your emotional memories are correctly informing you to be cautious and it is in your best interest to listen to them, but at other times they are simply a misfire.

Emotional memories are powerful and serve to guide and inform us as we navigate the present and prepare for the future. If you've ever had a drink or taste of something spoiled, you know that emotional memory protects you from doing that again. Unfortunately, you might unintentionally apply that same principle to relationships, where an implicit or explicit emotional memory cautions you and interferes with your pursuit of having love in your life. However, sometimes your emotional memories are informing you of a truth that you don't want to acknowledge. The interpretation you make when an emotional memory is activated, in any case, has to be left to your good judgment.

Find more information regarding my books about emotions here.

This blog is in no way intended as a substitute for medical or psychological counseling. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.


Lerner, J. & Keltner, D. (2000). Beyond valence: Toward a model of emotion-specific influences on judgment and choice. Cognition and Emotion, 14(4), 473-493.

Levy, B. & Anderson, M. (2002). Inhibitory processes and the control of memory retrieval. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 6(7), 299-305.

Lewis, M. (2008). Self-conscious emotions: Embarrassment, pride, shame, and guilt. In M. Lewis & J. M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 742-756). New York: Guilford Press.

Sherman, E. (1991). Reminiscentia: Cherished objects as memorabilia in late-life reminiscence. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 33(2), 89-100.

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