More than a Feeling: Emotions Determine What You Remember Interview with:

Signy Sheldon, PhD Assistant Professor Department of Psychology McGill University Montreal, QC, CAN

Dr. Signy Sheldon

Signy Sheldon, PhD
Assistant Professor
Department of Psychology
McGill University
Montreal, QC, CAN What is the background for this study?

Response: It is clear to most people that emotion and memory are strongly linked – thinking about our past experiences is often accompanied with a strong feelings, sometimes good and sometimes bad.

In psychological research, many investigations have looked at how emotional memories are remembered differently than non-emotional memories. A lot of this research has found that the valence of a memory, whether it is positive or negative, will impact how detailed a past event can be recalled. Much less research as looked at how the emotions we feel at the time of remembering can also influence the way that memory is recalled. This is a very important area of research. If emotions during remembering can influence what memories are accessed and how we experience these memories, this would suggest that our memories are tagged and organized according to emotions.

In this study, we looked at how different aspects of emotion can affect the types of past experiences we bring to mind to further investigate how emotions direct memory retrieval.

To do this, we had participants listen to unfamiliar excerpts of music that ranged in both memory valence (positive and negative) and arousal (high or low levels). To each piece of music, participants were asked to think of a past memory and then describe their experience of that event they were remembering. What are the main findings?

Response: Our main findings was that people were much faster to access a memory when they heard positive and arousing emotional music compare to all other types of emotional music. Positive emotional music also lead to the tendency to recall more social and were more energetic that negative music.

Another key finding was that positive and negative emotional music triggers people to recall similar emotional past memories. This means that positive music led to the tendency to recall positive memories and negative music with a tendency to recall negative memories – but this wasn’t the case for how emotionally arousing the music heard at retrieval was.

This provides us with some important clues for how we might organize our memories – we organize our memories by emotional valence and not arousal. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: What is important about this study is that we show that being tuned to different emotions will affect what you remember.

But more specifically, these findings provide us with some important clues about how remembering works and how emotion and memory are linked.

First, our finding that emotional cues leads to remembering our past in fundamentally different ways suggests that the act of remembering is a very dynamic. When we remember, we actually built past experiences in our minds rather that recall static records of past experiences. This constructive aspect of memory is what allows emotion during retrieval to influence memory processes.

Second, finding that happy memory led to the quickest and more direct access to our autobiographical memories fits with a main function of autobiographical memory, which is to maintain self-identity. The fact that we have a tendency to access autobiographical memories to happy emotional cues suggests that we try to keep desirable autobiographical experiences at the forefront of our minds.

Finally, our finding that positive and negative music will trigger the recall of similar memories shows us that emotion valence really influences how we organize our memories in our mind. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: Here we show that emotion at the time of remembering is one factor that can lead us to recall past events in very different ways. Our next step for this research is to figure out if remembering events when in a positive or negative emotional state rely on different brain processes by scanning people’s brain as they recall memories triggered by these different cues.

Another step is to investigate is people with emotional disorders, like depression and PTSD, show the same effect of emotion on the ways of remembering. This type of investigation would be very important for figuring out how memory is affected in these disorders. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: A good take home message is that how you feel will determine how you remember. If you want to remember something positive, listen to positive music! Thank you for your contribution to the community.

More than a feeling: Emotional cues impact the access and experience of autobiographical memories

Sheldon, S. & Donahue, J. Mem Cogn (2017). doi:10.3758/s13421-017-0691-6
Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.

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Last Updated on March 4, 2017 by Marie Benz MD FAAD