Illusions, Stanislavski, and Exercises to Wake Up Your Emotional Memory

The Science behind emotional recall exercises

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

One of the best ways to activate and strengthen your emotional memory is through sensory recall. Dr. Restak explains why this is so effective from a neuroscience perspective.

Woman listening to old recordings while drinking coffee
Neuroscience explains how the five senses bring back emotional memories from earlier times in your life. Photo By Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock

Emotional Memory Exercises and the Brain

Through a series of exercises recommended by Dr. Restak, you can strengthen your emotional memory, which is your ability to recall emotions associated with past events, such as excitement during your high school graduation. You may be wondering, though, how emotional memory exercises affect the brain.

An experiment on visual illusions carried out at the University College London involved volunteers watching a video of a revolving sphere. They pressed a button, and the sphere changed direction. 

However, the sphere was not actually changing direction; that was only their perception. The duration of perceived directional change was recorded as a switch rate. 

A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was then used to search for activated brain regions. It was found that the superior parietal lobes were active. The thicker and more interconnected the cortex in this region, the faster the switch rate. 

There are several interpretations of this experiment: That the superior parietal lobe is activating the perceptual illusions. Or superior parietal lobe is conveying an increased ability to note alternative interpretations for the ambiguous sphere. 

This ability may be genetic or as a result of experience as with architects or others whose work involves mental transformations. Similarly, you can perform an emotional memory exercise in which you stare into a mirror, holding your face taut to make yourself look younger.

Eventually, your brain will flip back and forth between the way you looked 10 years ago and the way you look now. The London study demonstrates the mechanism behind why this exercise effectively stimulates emotional recall.

Letter to Younger Self

Here is another exercise that Dr. Restak recommends to evoke emotional memory. Look at a picture of yourself taken when you were half your current age. 

Then write an imaginary letter from your younger self. Write all your concerns about school, careers, whether you should get married, and your friends. 

When you’re finished, respond with a letter to your younger self in which you discuss all the issues you were so concerned about years ago. You can describe how these issues resolve themselves somehow and other concerns take their place. This exercise, if done in the spirit of playfulness, can unite the emotions of earlier years with current emotions in an integrative process. 

Voice and Emotional Memory

Voice is also a powerful tool to activate emotional memory. Therefore, listening to old voice recordings from your younger self, if you have access to them, can help you recall the emotional memories associated with those phases in your life.

Dr. Restak provides an example to illustrate how the voice is tied to emotion. If you wanted to decide whether someone is lying to you, would you rather meet them face-to-face or talk to them on the telephone? 

Most people would prefer to encounter the person face-to-face. They are convinced they could tell in an instant if the person was lying by doing such actions as staring them in the eye. 

According to Dr. Restak, though, the telephone is better because emotional leakage is greater in the auditory than the visual sphere. From our earliest years, we’ve learned to control our facial expressions. It’s only actors who can exert similar control over their voices.

Memory and Imagination

Overall, the goal of emotional memory exercises is to relive not only the memory of your experiences but also the emotions accompanying those experiences. If the exercises are successful, you will recover memories for experiences you haven’t thought about in years. 

Create memory exercises of your own, remain alert to current sensations, and link them with similar sensations in the past and the emotions evoked by these sensations. Use the power of sensory memory, knowing that the sensations are what stimulate emotional memory.

Dr. Restak recommends reading Konstantin Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares. It is a storehouse of techniques for remembering, resolving, and reliving the emotions that accompanied moments from your past life. Stanislavsky wrote, “Our whole creative experiences are vivid and full in direct proportion to the power, keenness, and exactness of our memory.”

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.