Using Memory to Evoke Emotion for Artistic and Individual Expression

Why Forgotten Memories may still be having an impact on your life

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

Our emotional memory connects us to one another and allows for greater self-knowledge. Dr. Restak explains how the senses are a portal to the past and why some people may have trouble expressing emotions.

Woman painting in studio
Artists evoke emotional memories in others via their artwork by first taping into their five senses while creating their art. Photo By Viktoriia Hnatiuk / Shutterstock

Emotional Expression Issues

Emotional memory is a type of memory in which we recall the feelings associated with past events. The act of evoking these emotions is linked with the right hemisphere of our brain. 

Patients with right hemisphere injury can’t detect emotions in other people’s faces or voices. Sarcasm is lost on them. They may also say unintentionally insensitive things and have a general loss of emotional interpretive and expressive ability. 

There’s great differences between people in their ability to discern other people’s emotions and conceal their own. Concealment is necessary for harmony. We all have a lifetime of practice of concealing our emotions in the interest of preserving harmony, but this is difficult for some people with right hemisphere impairment. 

Some people have difficulty even experiencing their emotions. It’s called alexithymia. You break the word up into a– (without), lexis– (word), and thymos (feeling), and you find a person who has a significant challenge in emotional communication. 

Emotions are evoked in bodily terms—when something happens that would ordinarily be depressive for people, they may start complaining of a backache or headache. Those with alexithymia do not experience this. They also can’t fathom other people’s emotional responses. 

Emotions and the Unconscious

Emotional memory may not always be conscious. Panic and anxiety attacks under specific and repeatable circumstances may be due to a loss of conscious access to the original experience. For years, psychotherapy was directed at connecting evoked emotions to forgotten or inaccessible memories. 

Although now we’re in the age of brain science, we shouldn’t ignore earlier insights that current emotions can be evoked due to emotional experiences in the past that we can no longer remember. Here is an example: Lynn, a young woman who worked in the perfume section of a major department store, took home a sample bottle of a new scent to wear it on her date that evening. 

During her date, she felt blue and out-of-sorts. When Lynn got home, she reflected on the evening’s experience. She knew the perfume had something to do with her mood, and then she noticed that lavender was the top note of the perfume. 

A lavender-based perfume had been her grandmother’s favorite, and Lynn had been raised by her grandmother in the absence of her own mother. Lynn’s experience illustrates the emotionally arousing capacity of smell. 

Taste is also evocative. Novelist Marcel Proust wrote of this in In Remembrance of Things Past, where eating a madeleine evokes childhood memories. This arousing power is based on the direct connections of the olfactory nerves to the amygdala, which is a key component of the limbic system. 

Lynn’s pensiveness on her date resulted from the emotional memory aroused by that lavender-based perfume. She felt the stirrings of the emotion of loss but could not immediately identify its cause. 

Later when she gave full attention to the perfume, the connection with her grandmother became clear to her. At the moment of her insight, she evoked an intense memory of her grandmother along with the emotions of grief and loss that she hadn’t experienced in years.

How Artists Evoke Emotions

As with Lynn, the emotions that we have experienced in the past are best evoked through one of our senses—the activation of a specific sensory channel. The actress Ellen Burstyn describes the process:

Let’s say I had a situation in a play where I had to experience grief. If I approach it directly, trying to remember some time when I felt grief, the emotion usually retreats. But if I approach it through my senses and I, say, picture the clothes I was wearing then and see if I can feel the feel of the clothes on my body with my fingertips and then try to remember where in the room I was in and where the light was coming from, and where the window was, see if I can feel the light on my face … and go through all of the senses … then as I create all of those various sense memories, the emotional memory will follow.

Other artists have been able to use their emotional memories to evoke new emotions. For example, the singer Frank Sinatra advised aspiring singers to think about and feel what they were singing about. 

When conveying sadness, he thought about a sad event from his life, such as the ending of a relationship. After his breakup with actress Ava Gardner, he created in his ballads the pensive longing that immortalized his songs by reflecting on their relationship.

Thus, the process of evoking emotions is tied to emotional memory. We can enhance these emotions by recalling the sensory details of these past events.

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.