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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Emotional Memory

As the years pass, you build up a collection of good and bad memories. Your brain has the ability to recall these memories at the drop of a hat - almost instantly. As an example, read the following questions and watch how fast your brain pulls the recollection: Name some songs by the Beatles. What was the last movie you saw? Where were you on 9/11? Where were you when the OJ verdict was announced? Who is the president of the United States? Who was your first kiss? As you can see, your brain instantly finds a memory when a question is asked.
There are several types of memory, each with different time courses that involve different parts of the brain. One kind of memory that is easy to recognize is that of short-term vs. long-term memory. Short-term memory is fast and takes no more than several minutes to recall. Short-term memory reflects your ability to recall specifics, the particulars of what went on. However, such memories fade quickly. Long-term memory extends beyond those several minutes, to hours, days and years in the past. Another kind of memory is called working memory, which is usually associated with short-term memory. Working memory is the ability to hold facts or details of events in the forefront of your thoughts.
All types of memory are interconnected and pathways in your brain. When you experience a very significant event, the brain records not only the details of the experience (where you were, when, who was there, what happened, etc.) but the emotions you experienced at the time as well. The entire memory of an emotional event (an assault, an automobile accident, a wedding, death of a loved one, a combat experience, etc.) is actually remembered by several systems and stored in separate areas of the brain. That is to say that memory is distributed throughout the brain. No single region of the brain has any one of these types of memory completely embedded in it. Instead, each type of memory involves several areas of the brain acting from different regions, where information is brought together, processed and then re-distributed to where your memories are permanently housed. This happens simultaneously, with all of the regions being activated and processing at the same time, so memories are recalled before you even have it concentrate.
Ever wonder why some memories can stay vivid for years while others fade with time? The answer is emotion. Your memory will only hold on to new information (working memory) gained from these events for about five days (this is your short-term memory). Memories that are not significant are usually forgotten or "dumped" and erased after this five-day waiting period (this is the time taken to transfer events from short to long term memory). The brain will learn or memorize all kinds of information with frequent repetition and constant use. However, if a memory containing only facts is not frequently used, the memory slowly fades away. You can store and create memory, as when memorizing spelling words or learning math. For example: 1) Can you calculate square root by hand? 2) Do you remember the names of all your high school teachers or classmates? In the second question, chances are you can remember those who also have emotional memories attached to them. What I mean is that when your emotions are activate, your brain automatically takes note. That is why you remember some events from the past with vivid detail, particularly the ones that were emotionally charged (like a favorite possession, an unjust punishment or first love). For example, I remember when I was able to tie my shoes for the first time. I can still recall how I ran to my mother and proudly showed her my accomplishment. It was an emotion-filled moment, but also provided useful information that I have carried on to this day, which is why it is still so vivid in my memory.
Humans are hardwired to remember things that threaten or are very rewarding to them. You have learned that what is threatening may be painful and what is rewarding may offer pleasure. These pleasures and pains trigger emotions that elevate the status of any would-be memory. This makes a lot of sense in evolutionary terms: emotional events would be biologically significant. Many survival lessons involve emotion, such as fear, anger or joy and your memory is enhanced by hormones that are released when you experience a strong emotion or stress. This explains why emotional arousal has such a powerful influence on how well you remember things.
What is so important about this? Well, in daily living, especially during times of stress, your memory is very important. Your memory is active every second of your life. It can be controlled when you try and memorize something. Yet your memory is primarily unconscious, in that it works automatically beyond your control and awareness. But the key point is that it can change your mood within two minutes. Perhaps, you have injured your knee in an accident and whenever the memory is reactivated in your mind, the knee may begin to throb with pain and discomfort. The strength of the memory is associated with the intensity of the event. This can trigger your body to react as it did at the time of your experience. So whenever you see and or hear about an accident, or even watch one in a movie, your memory triggers painful tension in your knee.
Emotional memories re-create your original emotional response. A sight, a sound, or even a smell can bring back the joy, fear, love, or hate that you have associated with it. You may not remember all of your many trips to the grocery store or gas station. However, you will always remember times which have a good or bad value attached to them, such as the time a store was robbed when you were there, the time an old lady threatened you over a parking spot, or the time you spilled gasoline all over your clothes in one of those self-serve pumps. You don't remember washing your car unless that spray wand just about gave you a skull fracture. In short, if a daily memory does not have a strong emotional value, it is faded out. The problem is that you can give an ordinary, harmless, experience greater emotional value then it really deserves.
When you get upset, scared, angry, or nervous without any identifiable cause it is a sign that your feelings are being "triggered" by the memory of a past situation. When people feel a strong emotion, the emotional brain (amygdala) remembers it, along with many other details connected with the event. Even things that are indirectly related to the event can trigger the old feeling without our even being aware that this is happening. The emotional brain (amygdala) takes in all kinds of impressions like sights, smells, tastes, and sounds and uses a "fast track circuit" to try to find a match with something that happened before. The mind is constantly looking for patterns, which are stronger and have better developed pathways in the brain. As an example, an adult who has had a bad first marriage may automatically trigger an emotional memory of jealousy any time his wife mentions, "I might be late". The anxiety in that statement causes his brain to search for a memory and recalls a feeling of jealousy from his first marriage. If the husband dwells on this feeling, he will become insecure, jealous, and suspicious for no reason in the present.
This raises the important point that the brain doesn't know if an experience is real or imagined! How can this be you may ask? Well, the brain creates memories based on information it is given, usually through your senses but sometimes through your thoughts. If you are in the same room with your sweetheart, it will give you that warm, romantic feeling. However, looking at their picture and thinking about them will do the same thing, even though they are not present. Even better, simply thinking about them will produce the same feelings (triggering the same emotional memory). The brain only reacts to the thought or sense, it doesn't care how it receives that feeling or information, be it by physical presence, by reminders (pictures), or by "thought".
When an emotional memory is triggered, you will say the same things, feel the same intensity of emotion, and behave the same way that you did at the time the memory was created. That is to say, you will respond to today as if it was a different time or place in your life. The emotional experiences you have endured resurface and are replayed when you perceive an event in the present as emotionally similar to something for your past. As a result you may become defensive and lash out with anger or withdrawn and avoid confrontation out of sadness or fear. Many of these reactions, however, are not appropriate for the current situation. These reactions are based on past relationships and emotional experiences, causing you erupt or melt down in the form of crying, yelling, panic or violence.
People that are shy and introverted tell therapists that when they enter a restaurant, people look at them, creating anxiety. It's true, but it applies to everyone, not just those who are shy. When anything enters your visual field, you unconsciously begin scanning it. A person walking into a room is "scanned" by almost everyone else and that automatic scanning procedure takes about two seconds. The unconscious mind is looking for two things 1) to see if you have a memory or point of reference for comparison and 2) to protect you for any signs of danger. If the new individual is odd looking, carrying a weapon, or naked, the brain will start a full-scan and react accordingly (long stare, fright, or "Don't I know you?). Individuals with physical features that are unusual lead to the common "double take" where you will first unconsciously scan for safety and reference, then look again consciously to examine and analyze. These references are designed to help you, as when remembering an old friend, the location of the store in a mall, or when remembering needed facts/details.
Let's say you can't stand the smell of fresh asphalt. This may be because you had a bad crash on your bike on fresh asphalt when you were younger. You may or may not even remember the crash, but your body does, and it links that smell with the crash. A dog bit one of my clients when he was young. The bite hurt, and my client was frightened. The event became stored in his emotional memory. As a teenager, the sight of a dog-even a gentle one-still triggered a feeling of fear and hesitation. When my client sees a dog now, his brain instantaneously compares the image of the dog with his past memories through the fast track circuit. The brain finds a match-with the memory of "dog" and getting bitten-and triggers a feeling of fear. This feeling then affects how his brain perceives the dog. He reacts with a fear of dogs without knowing why. The information about the dog goes to the brain through another pathway-the "slow track circuit." If the different parts of your brains are working well together, the brain can then tell that everything is OK. It's a friendly dog, and there is no reason to feel threatened. However, even if this happens, the initial reaction has already sent signals down my client's nerves causing stress hormones to be released into his body.
Of course, such memories do not happen just with dogs. They happen with all of your past situations, including your relationships with other people-and places and situations that have left deep impressions on you. A person with a certain kind of walk or body type might cause you to feel fear because he reminds you of someone who once bullied you. The smell of a hot dog can make you nauseous because you came down with a stomach flu after eating one once. You may dislike people with red hair because of that one red-headed person who once picked on you. And the list goes on.
Your emotional response to a memory begins 90 to 120 seconds after a memory surfaces. For example, recall when you were told about the death of a loved one. The first two minutes of the conversation may have gone well, but then you become sad. If this memory remains in your attention, the feelings from the funeral and bereavement will surface today. Your mind then recalls other experiences of loss, unfairness, or guilt that is associated with what was felt at the time of your initial grief. In this way what was unconscious become conscious. You are now mindful of a memory, which was dormant and now has sprung to life. And the longer the memory is available in your awareness, the stronger the emotional component becomes, to the point that you may begin to cry. Famous actors and actresses have known this method for years. If they want to cry on stage, they can recall a painful memory from their personal life and within 90 seconds, tears are flowing.
When a memory comes to your awareness, it is as though you have placed a disc in a DVD player. The disc begins playing and you hear the same discussion or feel the same feelings over and over. Husbands and wives refer to this sometimes as "broken record" conversations. You may get the same lectures, the same anger, the same resentment, the same everything - it's all on the disc. For example, a couple can be discussing whether they have enough money to purchase a new computer. The wife mentions using a particular credit card - that triggers a memory in her husband, hitting the play button on the "credit card" disc. At that point, the husband launches into a long story about credit cards, high interest, harassing letters, and so forth. When that memory is pulled up, a discussion about the computer becomes useless. While you may try to remain business-like and focus on a topic of discussion, you can't help but think of the past.
You know when an emotional memory is trigged if the emotional reaction is far above what would be expected from the situation. If the listener has the general idea that the conversation doesn't make sense, you're probably listening to someone talk about emotions from the past. For example, a husband and wife meet an old boyfriend or girlfriend at the supermarket. Suddenly, there's a gigantic reaction complete with jealousy, suspiciousness, and anger. Many recollections begin with, "We've talked about this before," "When I was young..." and so on. References to the past are almost always related to an emotional memory. For example, teenagers have difficulty, understanding why a simple request for money leads into a long discussion of dad's collecting pop bottles for money during his youth. The key is the phrase, "When I was your age..." This kind of memory error is known as persistence. Persistence is not the loss of memory, nor is it the distortion of memory. A person suffering from persistence is doomed to remember events that he or she would prefer to forget and are frequently making references to the past. Persistence is often seen in post-traumatic stress disorder. After a traumatic event, such a violent attack or a rape, people often re-experience their memories of the event. Trauma victims seem to lose control over the retrieval of their trauma-related memories, so that the memories are constantly being pulled into awareness by the slightest trigger. Persistence can occur in non-traumatic situations as well. Depressed individuals are often bothered by negative memories that intrude when they are not wanted.
One of the most common situations in which emotional memory is created is in physical or mental trauma. Many of us have experienced trauma in our life. Traumatic emotional memories can be created by physical assaults, combat experiences, crime, death of a loved one, viewing severe accidents, surgery, or brush-with-death experiences. In trauma, the brain not only memorizes everything about the event - including the emotions - but adds the surroundings as well. If you are assaulted in your home, suddenly your home is no longer comfortable due to the memories it produces. A severe automobile accident may prompt you to quit driving completely or develop panic attacks if you near the site of the accident. Traumatic emotional memories are perhaps the strongest memories and often create long-lasting complications or challenges if not properly handled.
Another common way that emotional memories create patterns is in the case of a panic attack. When you suffer a panic attack, hormones are released in the brain, which creates the muscle tension, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and trembling associated with a panic attack. After an attack however, your brain remembers the feeling and the physical sensations. Months later, you may be in a crowded store or in an emotionally tense situation when the brain recognizes a physical sensation of tension, which it has seen before during the panic attack. At that point, the brain immediately triggers the "panic attack" memory. If you dwell on the memory of panic, you are quite likely to have another panic attack. Remember: With each emotion or experience, the brain is always searching to see if you have a memory on that topic.
Imagine being stressed-out for six months, almost at the breaking point. You decide to stop by the market to pick up some bread and milk. While in the store, you run into someone you dislike which immediately triggers a memory of how you were threatened and hurt by an argument with that person's husband. That conflict reminds you of this morning's argument with your spouse, which now dominates your concentration and your mood becomes worse. At this point, your brain, already overtaxed, kicks in with a panic attack. You feel your heartbeat race, your breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and you feel as though you are going to have a heart attack. You end up leaving your groceries and running out of the store. You now have compounded the threatening-memory of "this individual" and have created a new panic-memory with a label "market" on it. Therefore, the next time you drive by the market to stop for milk, your brain will pull the panic-memory. You'll develop a feeling - "I can't go in there!" This is exactly how people become agoraphobic, where they become fearful of leaving their home. You fear that the same negative outcomes that arose in the past will occur again. The link between the emotions and your memories is like the umbilical cord. You need to cut it so you can access the memory without the strength of your emotions.