Hey, how have you been feeling?
Are you feeling any different than you did last week, or the week before that, or four and a half months ago?
Human memory is a complex mechanism, a brain-wide process of encoding and recalling sights, sounds, words and emotions. When it comes to memory and emotion, it can be difficult to remember exactly how we’ve felt over time. What’s more, what we do recall about how we’ve felt at certain times is probably not completely accurate.
I fondly remember many moments of my childhood. But sometimes I wonder, are these actually real memories of real life events, or are they compilations of stories as told to me by family and moments captured in photographs and film?
In the case of childhood memories, it’s perhaps not important to know whether these memories– or the emotions that come with them– are accurate or not. But the case is very different when it comes to more actual life events such as deciding whether or not to change jobs, or when to end a relationship. If you’re not able to recall whether the current negative feelings you’re experiencing have persisted for months, or whether they are temporary, how are you to know how to make an informed and healthy decision?
The accuracy of how we remember our emotions can make a huge difference in most situations we encounter in our lives.
We as humans are incredibly biased when it comes to remembering emotion. In fact, study upon study show that, when we compare how we recollect real-time emotions to past reflections of the very same event, we are consistently biased by our general beliefs. This difference between memory and reality could be influenced by a cultural stereotype, personality trait, or even the impression that we’ve experienced specific patterns of emotions in similar situations in the past. Our beliefs hijack the memory of the real life emotional experience.
Take for instance the fact that women are often considered to be more ‘emotional’ than men. This gender difference often pops up when men and women are compared in memory-based reports of emotion. However, when men and women are compared in how they experience real-time reports of current emotion, there are virtually no differences between genders. This means that socio-cultural stereotypes in emotionality influence the way we perceive our emotions retrospectively, but not how we actually experience them.
Our emotions are remembered episodically. This explains why the details of how we remember something that happened can swiftly decay in our minds over time. It also means that the entire event can be coloured with biased memory for emotions, regardless of how we actually experienced it.
Let’s consider the last time my partner and I went out for dinner. It was an above-average night out, my day had gone well, and I felt quite happy and pleasant. Still, I honed in on my partner’s rude comment about choosing the most expensive dessert on the menu. When I think back on this night in the future, it’s likely that I will remember it as a generally negative evening. The negative bias of emotion tied to that occurrence overrules the fact that on average, my emotions were quite positive.
As episodic details fade from our memory, we tend to fill in these gaps with generalised beliefs about how we should feel or tend to feel in particular situations.
Take Mondays, the day we all seem to hate, for example. We generally remember our moods to be at their lowest levels on Mondays, right? Not entirely. Based on real-time reports, its been shown that Mondays are no different than any other day. Our memories of ‘bad’ days are actually more biased than memories of ‘good’ days,
Just like the gender identity difference in remembering emotion, cultural identity also contributes to our memory for emotion. As individuals, how we identify ourselves can largely determine the expectations and stereotypes involved in our emotionality. Someone who believes ‘I am a laid back person’, for example, is likely to remember their emotions as less intense than they actually were.
How we remember our emotions is often more indicative of our beliefs about ourselves, and the circumstances we've encountered, than about the emotions we truly experienced.
The same is true for our expectations about the future. Since memory plays a large role in forming our future expectations, how we think we will feel in future situations is also greatly influenced by these same situational and identity-based beliefs. This means we often inaccurately predict how we'll feel in the future.
A person who believes that success in their career is a core part of their identity will likely overestimate how happy a job promotion would make them feel. This is true even when they have in the past overestimated their emotional reaction to previous job promotions.
Similarly, when we think about terrible events happening, like getting in a car accident or defaulting on a loan, we imagine we will experience extreme negative emotions for a long time. In reality, more often than not, our emotional experience is much less extreme than we anticipate it will be. And we’re also able to jump back and return to normal emotional levels much more quickly than we expected.
Our memories and future projections might not give us true insight into how we felt or will feel– but we may be able to learn more about the personal beliefs we have regarding our identities and behaviours. When we bring our attention back to the present– when we live in the moment, rather than dwell on memories of the past or fears about the future– this is when we can try to better understand the factors involved in determining why we feel the way we currently do.
This post was written by Leah Palmer, a member of the VINAYA LAB specialising in psychology. She's interested in exploring how psychological research and technology can be integrated to promote wellbeing. She enjoys reading, cooking, and travel.