How Emotional Memory Helps Us Understand Others

Mirror Neurons, Role Playing, and Empathy

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Have you ever wondered how great actors can tap into universal human emotions? It has to do with emotional memory. Dr. Restak explains.

Woman crying a tear
Through the use of our emotional memory, we better understand the emotions of others as we relate to their body and facial expressions. Photo By Motortion Films / Shutterstock

Illustrating Emotional Memory

Emotional memory, which acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski defined as “that type of memory which makes you relive the sensation you felt when your father died,” helps us to better get to know ourselves and understand the emotions of others.

Stanislavski contrasted emotional and general memory with a story, which he used as a teaching aid. In the story, two travelers were marooned on some rocks by high tide. After their rescue, they narrated their impression. 

One remembered every little thing he did—how, why, and where he went. The other man had no recollection of the place at all. He remembered only the emotions he felt, in succession: delight, apprehension, fear, hope, doubt, and finally, panic. 

The first traveler experienced the incident in purely geographic terms, while the other traveler described his emotions. The first traveler might have suffered from what’s called alexithymia, which is a disorder of emotional experience.

Understanding Others’ Emotions

Stanislavski provides a striking example, also in his book about emotional memory, that we can vividly identify with when first hearing it. Imagine yourself back in 19th-century Russia. It’s a wintery night, and you’re inside a nice warm house with a fire while at a dinner party. 

In the midst of the dinner party, one of the guests turns to the hosts and says, “How’s little Boris doing in school?” Boris is the hosts’ six-year-old son who was hit by a carriage about six months earlier and killed. The guest knew this, but he had momentarily forgotten it. 

Emotional memory enables us to understand why that scene is so painful for all concerned. We can almost see the grief-stricken faces of the parents, the shocked, embarrassed, and even angry faces of the other dinner party guests, and then the look of abjection, embarrassment, and regret of the forgetful guest. We can understand that dinner party situation because our brain processes emotion in the same way as those at the dinner.

The Basis of Empathy

Your brain changes whenever you observe in other people the facial expressions typical of the various emotions. Alterations can occur in your brain associated with that emotion. 

In fact, a natural, universal language of emotions involves people experiencing the emotions felt by another person, either encountered directly or via a picture. Emotions link us with other people; this is the basis for empathy. 

A neurophysiologist from UCLA, Marco Iacoboni, states, “The way we understand the emotions of others is by simulating in our brain the same activity we have when we experience those emotions.”

There’s a historical context for understanding emotions. Scientists first became aware of a link between bodily expression and emotions in the late 19th century. 

Charles Darwin, in a little-known book in 1872, called The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, observed that each emotion is conveyed by a distinct facial expression and had photos which showed this occurring across cultures. However, the emotions we encounter are usually subtler than the ones seen in these pictures.

Mirror Neuron Experiments

More recently, we’ve begun to understand the mirror neurons in the prefrontal cortex, which came from an experiment in which a monkey was observing another monkey taking a peanut and eating it. Researchers noted that the cells in the monkey observing were the same cells activated in the monkey who was eating the peanut. This is called a perception-action matching system. 

You can perform an experiment in which you imagine yourself watching a video of a tea party. The tea set is put out with cookies and a napkin, and then a hand comes out and grasps the cup and picks it up. 

You watch that, and then you see another movie in which it looks like the tea party is finished. There’s a soiled napkin, the teacups are empty, and the cookies are eaten. 

The hand comes toward the cup, but your brain does not respond the same way. The mirror neurons only respond to the first video because the action is appropriate to the situation. 

Your perception-action matching system is mirroring what the other’s intention is. The intention in the first video is to pick up the tea and drink it; the second is to clean up after the tea party, which is very different. 

When you watch a person drinking tea, you’ll have activation of the neurons in the sensory part of your brain that will match what’s happening to that person while drinking the tea. That doesn’t mean you can taste the tea, but it gives you an idea of how we are linked together with these mirror neurons, influencing one another.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.
About Kate Findley 277 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.