Memories, Sweet Memories


After an excruciatingly long week, the gifts are sitting nicely wrapped under the tree, the figgy pudding is gently resting on the table, your relatives finally figured out how to unmute themselves on Zoom and are now gesturing and blasting loudly from the small computer screen that can barely contain them anymore and you’re happy you’ve finally managed to sit down today. But as you sit there, gulping eggnog and tuning out the hundredth remark about how this year is the worst, your mind starts drifting away to better times. Your memory tells you that there used to be something special about Christmas, something that you’ve somehow lost this year. And while, objectively speaking, this year is truly the worst, if you think really, really hard about it, your memory is quite often recounting tales of “better, brighter times”, similar to how your grandpa always talks about the “good ol’ days”. But is memory that reliable or, much like your grandpa, does it have an ever-so-slight tendency to brush over the more…inconvenient parts? (If you know what I mean…)

Well, this might not be what you wanted to hear, but your memory is, unfortunately, not that accurate when it comes to emotions. But before we dive into the specifics, a quick note. When researchers talk about memories, they distinguish between various types. For example, remembering how to ride a bike is known as procedural memory and is a different type of memory from, let’s say, remembering the capital of Germany, which would be semantic memory. Similarly, memories about yourself form a distinct category and are part of the autobiographical memory. We will only talk about the latter in this article, and the distinction is relevant, as these various categories of memories are usually represented in separate areas of the brain and they also tend to behave differently over time (you never forget how to ride a bike, but, spoiler alert, you might misremember how happy you once were).

Now that we’ve established that tales of “better, brighter times” are called autobiographical memories, let’s move on. Autobiographical memories, in general, contain an affective component, be it shock, anger, or joy, which enhances the amount of details contained in the memory. This happens due to the fact that emotions trigger a cascade of neurochemical interactions, which in the end strengthen the representation of the memory in the brain. Furthermore, research has shown that events in which people are personally involved are remembered more vividly. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense: if a tiger chases you around the fifth tree from the cave, you’d better remember not to go there anymore; similarly, if that’s where you found food to last you for weeks, it would also be nice to keep it in mind.

However, while it might seem that autobiographical memories are more reliable, as they contain more details, they remain equally prone to misremembering. According to common belief, your memory stores some information and, every time you want to remember it, you just “read” from that folder, without changing anything. But actually, every time you pick up that folder, you might accidentally spill some coffee on one page or cross a few words on another. In other words, every time you remember something, you alter some details of the memory. What’s more, when it comes to autobiographical memories, your emotions (the affective component from earlier) also play an important role.

On the one hand, people tend to generally have a positive image of themselves and they also naturally strive towards improved well-being. Taken together, these things lead to an automatic, unconscious bias towards positive memories, which is already apparent during memory encoding. For example, participants who received both positive and negative feedback in an experiment showed better recall of the positive feedback compared to the negative one. On the other hand, as mentioned before, memories become altered as they are remembered. At the same time, the mood at the time of remembering tends to become imprinted on the memory itself (so if you’re really happy and you remember a sad memory, you might reappraise it such that, in the end, it doesn’t seem so sad anymore).

In other words, we usually remember more good things and forget more bad ones because our brain is trying to maintain our general well-being. And in case that might not be enough or we couldn’t forget certain things, our brain has an extra mechanism to help out: it takes advantage of the malleability of our memories and actually changes the negative ones. So next time you find yourself wondering whether you’ve really lost that Christmas “something”, you’ll know it’s probably not true. But you’ll also know your awesome brain is always looking out for you.

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Emotion and Autobiographical Memory

Remembering the Details: Effects of Emotion

A “Rosy View” of the Past: Positive Memory Biases

Remembering the silver lining: Reappraisal and positive bias in memory for emotion

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