4 Observations on Memory and Emotion
A neuroscientist muses on Inside-Out
Posted Jun 30, 2015
Last week I saw Pixar’s Inside-Out, and I really enjoyed it. It was really funny, but unfortunately I think I was also allergic to something in the theater, because a couple times my throat tightened up and my eyes kept watering. Yes, I was moved through a full range of emotions, but also, as a neuroscientist, I was impressed with the nuanced depiction of complex brain functions that the movie depicted. Understanding these can help you better understand yourself, so I figured I'd share 4 observations:
1. Emotions strengthen memories
Others may have said it before her, but I think Maya Angelou said it best: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Feelings not only color our experiences, but they help cement memories in our brains for the long term. The brain structure responsible for recording new memories is the hippocampus. And interestingly, the hippocampus is also an integral part of the emotion circuitry in the brain: the limbic system.
2. Wellbeing is not the absence of sadness
Modern culture seems to teach us that happiness is always good, and sadness is always bad. Some people would have us think that you should never have to feel sad. But in fact for true emotional wellbeing, you need to feel connected to all your emotions. Certainly positive-thinking and other similar strategies can help us keep from unnecessarily wallowing in our sadness at times, but it’s often important to actually feel negative emotions. Otherwise you can get disconnected from your emotions, and that can have negative consequences.
3. Memories are dynamically reconstructed
Memories are not like a YouTube video where you can access a complete scene for viewing, and leave it unchanged. Memories are more like repeatedly assembled collages; they are reconstructed from bits and pieces every time you remember them, and sometimes things can get moved around, re-oriented or filled-in. That means your current emotional state, as well as other memories, can influence your perception of a particular memory. And not only that, they can actually change the memory when you try to remember it again. This effect is particularly insidious in people suffering from depression. In depression all your previously happy memories can be re-colored through the lens of sadness. Furthermore that re-coloring may affect not just your current recall of the memory, but also how it’s remembered from then on.
4. Different people have different emotional lives
Our lives are always colored by our emotional circuitry, but those colors are different for different people. Some people more readily experience joy, others sadness, anger or disgust. It’s why some people are more at risk for depression than others, or how some people just always seem to be happy. There’s even evidence that the feeling of disgust is more highly developed in political conservatives. With these differences between people, it’s easy to be judgmental that one person’s emotional palette is better than another, but it’s not true. They each have their advantages and disadvantages. They key is to understand and accept your own emotional landscape, and not try to rate yourself against others. And if you want to continue down the path of being a better person, then try to understand and accept the emotional landscapes of others, and not try to rate them against yours.
If you liked this post then check out my book - The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time