Emotional Memory and Why It’s So Powerful


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“It’s surprising how much memory is built around things unnoticed at the time.” ~Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

Memory can be a funny thing.

Sometimes, when you need it most it can’t be found. Like when someone is approaching you, waving and calling your name. You realize that you should know this person; they obviously know you. But, no matter how hard you struggle to remember their name, your gray matter just won’t cough it up. 

Then there are times when something triggers a memory that’s been long forgotten. The trigger might be a song or a smell; it’s often sensory. And in an instant, we’re transported back to a time and place that we haven’t thought of in years. 

 As a small child, I often stayed overnight at my favorite aunt’s house. She was great fun and knew how to entertain children. My first experience with emotional memory occurred as a result of those visits, and it was quite powerful.

Before bedtime, my aunt would draw a warm, bubbly bath and let me play for a while. There was always a bar of gold Dial soap on the side of the bathtub, along with the toys that she kept for my visits.Dial Bath Soap

Unbeknownst to me then, the scent of that soap would stay with me long after those overnighters came to an end. Many years went by before I got another whiff of Dial soap, but when I did the memories came flooding back. In my mind’s eye, I could see that bathroom again, the light reflecting off the salmon pink tile. I could feel the warm water against my skin and hear my aunt’s laughter.

The house we grew up in had a sizable backyard and just beyond that were train tracks. In the 1960s and early ’70s, there was a lot of activity on those tracks. Freight trains came by multiple times throughout the day and night. During the daylight hours, we would race to the backyard as soon as we heard the whistle off in the distance. We waited patiently for the train on the crest of the small hill overlooking the tracks. This was our chance to wave to the conductor and the rear brakeman who always rode in the caboose.

TrainWhile some people would complain about the noise, we grew accustomed to it. It was a comforting reminder that we were home. We lived on a quiet street (other than the trains) and on summer nights the only sounds were the crickets and the hum of a box fan trying to cool the humid air. I loved hearing the train whistle and feeling the vibrations as the approaching engine got closer. When I grew up and moved out, I left those sounds behind. 

Some years later I was staying in a place that was near a set of train tracks. It was a warm August evening, the bedroom window was open, and the crickets were singing their familiar summer song. Suddenly, I heard it. Off in the distance, a lowly train whistle blew. At that moment I was back in my twin bed, in the old house, in my old neighborhood. The feeling was intensely pleasant and I squeezed my eyes shut, wanting desperately to hang on to it as long as possible. 

Who knew that seemingly insignificant things could stay with us, buried in the long-term memory of our brains? The things and objects that were a somewhat mundane part of daily life.

So, what is it that causes them to generate the strong emotions that they do so many years later?

While the process is still not fully understood, it’s believed that the hippocampus and two amygdalae regions in the brain play key roles in processing both memories and emotions and that interactions between the two may reinforce the link between them.

I’ve always assumed it’s the feeling that we’re actually pulled from the present moment and thrust back to a time that occurred many years prior. After all, the sensory components remain the same, while we ourselves have changed.

Vintage CollageMost of us have old family photos that are occasionally brought out and reminisced over; a tangible connection to a past that’s gone forever.

Similar to those pictures are memorable occasions filed away in our subconscious minds. They’re easily recalled due to the significance they played in our lives.

However, many thousands more exist that have slowly faded away. Seemingly insignificant moments that are all too soon forgotten.Moments

Those rare occasions of emotional memory are golden opportunities to relive, for a few precious seconds, the moments that are no longer inconsequential. Only with the passage of time does the true value of these flashbacks become obvious. 

And therein lies another reason why we should live every moment to the fullest.



How To Be Victorious in One Postive Step


Some of the toughest battles we fight are with ourselves.

Whether it’s having that second piece of pie or getting the last word in a disagreement, we often act impulsively instead of deliberately with careful thought.

Everyday life is filled with external stress that comes from our relationships, jobs and a multitude of other places. While it’s impossible to control these outside circumstances, we do have the power to control our attitudes about them.

I’ve written before about the need for self-reflection when it comes to building a better life and relationships. Understanding ourselves fully will explain why we react to certain people and situations in the ways that we do.

In turn, this understanding teaches us to harness automatic emotions and use careful thought and reasoning when making decisions. Foresight makes hindsight unnecessary.

But, where do these automatic emotions come from?

If a given experience or person causes us to have a negative reaction then we’ll associate the next similar experience with suspicion and distrust. Sometimes simply thinking about the person/experience is enough to trigger bad feelings. This is called generalization of learning and can reinforce the self-defeating behaviors that often result.  

However, we must consciously want to develop this skill and that requires changing how we think.

None of us is 100% right all the time. Our different worldviews and histories shape our opinions and beliefs. We certainly have our unique perceptions of things, but that doesn’t mean the other person is wrong.

It simply means that your experience and his/hers are different, as well as the impressions that go along with those experiences.

When we think of being victorious it’s usually in the context of winning a competition with someone else.

But, many hard-fought victories involve ourselves. Understanding our habit of viewing other people and ideas in a certain way will help us identify the areas we need to work on. 

If we remain rigid in our opinions and unwilling to listen to another’s POV, then we’re destined to remain stuck. No personal growth is possible.

But, why do people choose ignorance over enlightenment? I believe it’s due to familiarity and fear. We’re more comfortable with things that are familiar and we’re fearful of looking incompetent.

Stepping outside our comfort zone and being vulnerable requires a lot of courage. We want to feel safe and that’s more easily achieved in a familiar environment. Being vulnerable means admitting we’re “less than perfect.” 

Research professor Brene Brown warns that perfectionism shouldn’t be confused with self-improvement. In this interview with Forbes magazine she comments that healthy striving is self-focused: how can I improve. Perfectionism is other-focused: what will they think?

To be conquered by our own negativity and narrow-mindedness is truly a shame. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Conquering those demons requires honesty about our fears and failings, which is never easy. We must acknowledge our weaknesses and work to overcome them. Realizing that other people struggle with their own doubts and limitations can help us change our perspective. Once we’re able to see through a more neutral lens our feelings and attitudes will change for the better!