Our selective memory comes from emotion. Emotion amplifies events and allows us to remember them clearly. Our emotions influence our minds in the memory formation process. Below we will discuss why we remember things we care about and forget everything else.
How Do Our Memories Affect Us?
Forming memories allows us to construct a concept of our identities. They impact our beliefs, morals, and values, but our minds do not keep tabs on everything we have done. Selective memory acts in a way to record only emotionally meaningful moments. Amy Neftzger put it wisely — “Memories are not always the best measure of things.”
How Does Emotion Impact the Memory Formation Process?
The strongest memories come from a complete capture of the scene through our senses. A more emotionally-charged event requires greater attention, so we observe the moment more thoroughly. We can focus on the crucial aspects of the event, letting us optimize our attentional capacity.
Repetition also helps to solidify a memory by forcing us to pay attention to it. This technique is most useful if you struggle to make an emotional connection to the thing you want to remember.
However, an event that causes us to feel a powerful emotion like fear automatically becomes less forgettable as it activates stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. These hormones consolidate memories as a means to help us avoid them in the future. If you have experienced a painful emotion, you are more likely to remember it than physical pain.
You also retain positive emotions like joy and excitement that trigger stress hormones like adrenaline. Also, you can train your selective memory to replace your unhappy memories with more pleasant ones. Priming, or behavioral activation through suggestion, can lead you to move long-term memories into the short-term and make more goal-oriented choices.
Your present emotional state can bring forth different memories. For instance, feeling sad can lead you to think about other times you felt that way, thus remembering unfortunate moments in your life. On the other hand, a happier mood can recall more enjoyable times. When you experience an extreme emotion like despair, you may feel unable to think of anything pleasant because of these mood associations.
People blank out when trying to recall specific facts because of stress and anxiety. The Yerkes-Dodson law shows that too low or high arousal levels can adversely affect performance. Feelings like boredom unfocus the mind while stimulating ones like anxiety can narrow your focus to a point where you achieve a memory deficit about important information.
Our memory does have a flaw. We do not always remember every moment of an event, but rather the emotional peaks, plummets, and conclusions. If you went to a party and had fun throughout most of it, yet it ended in an argument, you will primarily remember the sad ending. This principle is called the Peak-End rule.
How to Master Your Selective Memory
If you feel stuck in an emotional trough, you can work with your selective memory to reverse your feelings about the situation. For instance, you can think about the events that led up to the argument and convince yourself that you made the best decisions that night, even if you did not. By focusing on these “distorted” thought patterns, you can rewire your brain to think positively.
Furthermore, our brains reject unnecessary memories. If you had a painful experience that is no longer relevant to you, your brain would work to eliminate it from short-term memory. Nevertheless, it’s not always easy to forget the pain. With consistent efforts to rewire your thoughts, you can lessen the memory’s emotional impact and move on with your life.