As we’ve seen from many past articles on the topic, memory is one of the widest areas of interest within psychology. This may be because there is still so much we don’t yet understand about this quite abstract concept. It may also be because of the extreme relevance of memory to so many everyday situations. Many wonder why it is that memories exist and what their purpose is, while others question the encoding and retrieval of memories, and those interested in the latter have, as also seen in other articles noticed many interesting features of memory that can be linked back to what we remember most and how these memories can be changed over time. In this article, we will discuss another feature of memory.
Memories are most easily recalled in the same context or situation as that which they were encoded in. That much has been shown time and time again experimentally and has led to some interesting conclusions about how we best learn, by using contextual links to make retrieval of data most easy. Obviously going back to the same location will restore the context and make memories easier to recall, but there may be other, similar ways in which we can retrieve data based on context. Bower, a cognitive psychologist believed that memory could be in some way linked to emotion.
He asked people to remember lists of words when both in a happy mood and a sad mood, and then asked them to recall them again when they were both in happy and sad moods. What he found was that when we form memories, they are labelled with the emotional context of the memory. This means that if we feel sad, all memories that are encoded in that state will be labelled as sad and the same is true of happy memories. Then, since memory retrieval is dependent on context, we are able to retrieve happy memories much more easily when once again happy, and sad ones much more easily again in sad states. This is known as mood-dependant retrieval. Because of this, we are much more likely to experience extremes of emotion than just a slight happiness or sadness, since the first hint of sadness will make us remember many other sad things and this will make us even sadder, and of course the same is true of happiness.
We are also more likely to just record the positive things that happen when we are in a happy mood and just store the negative things that happen when we are in a sad mood, since we pay more attention to those things that agree with the mood we are in. For example, when we are sad, we often only pay attention to the sad things that are going on, and so these are all that we be imprinted in long term memory. This is known as mood-congruent processing.
This research finding about how emotion and memory are linked has led to much further research into how memory can have an impact on severe emotional disorders such as depression, and it is important to realise that it is often just simple processes like this that take place in all of us that end up causing severe harm in just a few unlucky individuals. In order to counter the negative issues of the effect, perhaps we can try to focus a little more on the positive things that are going on when we are sad, and we may soon realise that things are not as bad as we perhaps had first thought.
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