Mnemonic Misery

New research shows that feeling bad can help you remember well.

Posted Jul 05, 2017

"Woman, Female, Beauty, Young, Portrait" by Darksouls1 / Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain
Source: "Woman, Female, Beauty, Young, Portrait" by Darksouls1 / Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain

In his 1856 poem “The Woodspurge,” British poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti explores the relationship between memory and grief.  The distraught narrator of the poem aimlessly wanders through the countryside until finally sitting down with his head between his knees, staring disconsolately at the ground beneath him.  Of the several weeds sprouting there, his gaze randomly settles upon a plant called a woodspurge, whose flower is composed of three small cups.  At the poem’s conclusion, the narrator reflects on the strange power grief has to permanently fix details associated with a painful experience in our memory: "From perfect grief there need not be/ Wisdom or even memory:/ One thing then learnt remains to me,/ The woodspurge has a cup of three." Whatever he may or may not remember about the causes of his grief, he will never forget a random and yet precise detail he observed while he was grieving.

A considerable body of evidence, both formal and anecdotal, suggests that negative emotions can have a beneficial effect on memory accuracy.  Like the narrator of Rossetti’s poem, most of us have strikingly vivid memories of experiences that we associate in some way with negative emotions such as grief or fear.  Perhaps it is the pattern on a shirt worn by a driver who almost ran us down when we were crossing the road, or the song that was playing on the radio when we received a piece of bad news, but whenever we remember the event, the details of the memory are as sharp as the moment we first experienced them.  In light of the very real possibility that the perceived clarity and sharpness of such memories may be purely illusory, produced by a subjective impression of intensity due to the strong emotions associated with a remembered experience, many studies have attempted—with mixed results—to ascertain the objective validity of such subjective impressions.  A recent study at the University of California, Riverside, produced some significant new insights into the relationship between negative emotions and memory.

Specifically targeting the relationship between subjective and objective measures of emotional memory, the researchers of the study had participants memorize the color and orientation of pictured objects under negative, neutral, and positive emotion conditions, and then reconstruct the color and orientation in a later random presentation of the objects.  In a second experiment, the researchers followed the same procedure, but also added assessments of “subjective ratings of vividness of memory representation and subjective ratings of confidence.”  A number of interesting findings emerged from the two experiments.

Regarding objective measures of the effect of negative emotion on memory, participants did, in fact, show an improvement of memory after viewing an image calculated to induce negative emotion.  In recalling both the color and orientation of presented objects, participants in the negative emotion condition remembered details far more accurately than they did under either the neutral or the positive condition.

Interestingly, the improvement in the precision of the participants’ memory (the “qualitative” aspect) did not carry over into an increase in the probability of a successful recall (the “quantitative” aspect).  In other words, viewing images under the negative emotion condition did not make the participants any more likely to retrieve a mental representation of an object than they were under the other two conditions, but the mental representations they did retrieve under the negative emotion condition were far more precise and accurate than the others.  Like Rossetti’s unhappy narrator, the participants exhibited a marked qualitative improvement in memory in the presence of negative emotion, even if their quantitative memory did not improve.  The researchers believe the difference between the qualitative and quantitative impacts of negative emotion on memory explains some of the inconsistencies among earlier studies that did not clearly distinguish between the two parameters.

In the second part of the study, the participants subjectively rated the vividness of their retrieved memories, and their confidence in the accuracy of these memories.  Here, too, the study produced an interesting finding.  As with the objective measures of the accuracy of their memories, the participants’ subjective rating of vividness and confidence increased in the negative emotion condition, while showing no change in the neutral or positive emotion conditions.  Participants not only remembered more details in the negative emotion condition; they knew that they remembered more details. This boost in “metacognitive sensitivity”—or awareness of whether or not one actually knows what one thinks one knows—indicates an increase in participants’ “introspective monitoring of memory” in the negative emotion condition, and suggests that “emotional modulation of memory quality could improve metacognitive sensitivity.”

This finding would appear to support the observation of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky that “suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.”  Negative emotions connected with some past event not only help us to remember the details of that event more precisely; they also make us more conscious of the memory processes through which we remember those details.  This is the kind of painfully won self-awareness that allows someone, not only to remember that “the woodspurge has a cup of three,” but more importantly to understand what such an act of remembrance reveals about the human experience of grief and other negative emotions.