Hidden Treasures Behind the Walls of Memory

How our past moods affect our present memories

Posted Mar 25, 2016

Hal McDonald
Source: Hal McDonald

In the 2001 movie Amélie, a young woman finds a small tin box full of childhood treasures behind a loose tile in the wall of her rented apartment.  A little detective work leads her to a man who lived in the apartment as a child forty years earlier, and she places the box in a phone booth where she knows he will find it.  Upon opening the box and seeing its contents, the man is overwhelmed with nostalgia as he relives his entire childhood in a moment.

As singular as the specific circumstances are, the man’s unexpected emotional encounter with his childhood is not unlike our own experience with memories from the past, which can pop into our heads completely without warning and fill us with the same powerful emotions we felt when we first lived the remembered experience.  A few days ago, for instance, I was sealing a frayed lamp cord in my office with some electrical tape when the sound of the tape peeling off the roll and the circular motion of winding the tape around the cord triggered the memory of a Sunday afternoon bike ride with a friend the summer after my eighth grade year.  We had stopped to eat our sandwiches in a shady spot next to a stream, and I took advantage of the break to replace the tape on my handlebars that had come loose during the ride.  Winding the electrical tape around my lamp cord, I suddenly relived that childhood experience and felt once again the sun on my back, the breeze on my face, and the total contentment of a lazy day at the beginning of summer vacation.

Although the trigger of my own midday trip down memory lane might have been a little less magical than finding a long-lost box of treasures in a phone booth, my experience and that of the man in Amélie share one very important characteristic in common: they are involuntary autobiographical memories.  Unlike voluntary autobiographical memories, which we retrieve at will by consciously thinking about a particular time in our lives, those  of the involuntary variety sneak up on us unawares, triggered spontaneously by some cue in our environment over which we have little or no control.  And when they flash into our conscious awareness, involuntary autobiographical memories pack a powerful emotional punch, being far more likely “to result in bodily reactions and impact on current mood than voluntary memories.”  Not all our autobiographical memories are pleasant of course, and the bad ones can make us feel just as bad as the good ones make us feel good (the smell of a magic marker, for instance, recently triggered the stomach-churning memory of a high school history presentation for which I was woefully under-prepared).  When the good ones come, however, filling us with a nostalgia that transports our minds and lifts our spirits, it is as if we have received a special surprise gift from our past.

Some people’s lives being a little less magical than others, not everyone has the same well of intrinsically positive experiences to draw from, but research on involuntary autobiographical memories (or IAMs) indicates that having a magical past is not a prerequisite for, or guarantee of, having magical memories of it.  In a 2013 study at Oxford University, 95 participants were shown an overtly “positive” film depicting scenes of “jubilation,” “excitement,” and “pride,” and then asked to keep a one-week diary in which they recorded involuntary autobiographical memories related to it.  Immediately before and after viewing the film, the participants were administered a test measuring their current mood, and the two results were compared to determine their emotional reaction to seeing the movie.  Participants who reported a positive mood change in response to the film later reported a higher number of positive IAMs, compared with participants who reported little or no mood change.  In other words, having experienced precisely the same positive experience, positive involuntary memories associated with it were a strictly individual matter of personal emotional response.   The way we respond to our present circumstances—whether those circumstances are positive, neutral, or even negative—has a direct relationship to the memories we create of them.

Because of the definitive nature of involuntary autobiographical memories, we have no control over when or how often we retrieve them (they are, after all involuntary memories).  As the Oxford study reveals, however, the emotional quality of the memories  we form when we have an experience is directly related to the frequency and type of IAMs available to us as we proceed through our future lives, making possible those special unexpected moments of intense feeling such as the grown boy in Amélie experiences in a random phone booth on a street in Paris.