What Is Emotional Memory?

The Power of Emotional Memory

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

How did you feel when you lost your first tooth or learned how to ride a bike? Emotional memory may not be as well-known as working memory, but it is still essential to our sense of self. Dr. Restak explains.

two ladies smile while thinking about past memories
A natural intergenerational gap exits between adults and the next generation relating to being an adolescent due to the adults’ loss of emotional memory that ties them to when they were young. Photo by MAD.vertise/Shutterstock

What Is Emotional Memory?

One aspect of memory that we do not usually consider when we think about memory is emotional memory. Despite its importance, most of us have lost touch with how we experienced the world in the past. 

“I recently went to a high school class reunion,” Dr. Restak said. “I noticed that some of the people I recognized and some of the people I didn’t, some of my good friends I recognized more quickly. We began to reminisce and talk about football games, dances, things like this. We remembered all the incidents and events, but the memories of the emotions that accompanied them were not present, not as clear. Or if you could bring them up at all, you had vague memories.”

You can experience the same thing by taking out your own high school graduation pictures and looking at them carefully. Do you remember the feelings that day when you graduated from high school? 

Or how you felt about the specific classmates in the class picture that you’re looking at now? Even those whose faces and names you can remember?

You may feel disconnected and unable to re-experience your thoughts and feelings from that phase. That’s normal—there’s nothing wrong with that. However, it is essential that you learn to regain that emotional continuity with events in your past. 

The acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski defined emotional memory as “that type of memory which makes you relive the sensation you felt when your father died.” Stanislavski illustrates emotional memory here by citing an example that almost every one of us can identify with, losing someone who has died. 

Emotional Memory Matters

Obviously, not every experience is as emotionally arousing as the death of a father. Other memories are much more mundane and easily forgotten, but we pay a price for forgetting too much of our past. If we allow our emotional memories to decline too much, we will eventually encounter a stranger staring back at us from our mirror.

“I recently met with a patient of mine, an Alzheimer patient, and she had a photo album,” Dr. Restak said. “We went through it. I noticed that she wasn’t able to identify people in there. And sad to say she wasn’t even able to remember pictures of herself or what [was happening in them].”

Not only could she not remember the events, but she also had no emotional memory to link with her past and no ability to integrate her life experiences. Similar, albeit less extreme, losses of emotional memory can occur in any of us. Practical consequences such as generational conflict flow from such losses.

Intergenerational conflict is seen in adults who can’t retain an emotional memory or connect with themselves as they were adolescents. That puts them in conflict with adolescent children, resulting in arguments over rules and regulations such as car use and choice of friends. 

Disagreements about authority and the proper role of government, child rearing practices, the goal of education—all these types of issues come up as a source of intergenerational conflict, which are based on the fact that the adult cannot really remember what it was like when he or she was an adolescent.

Emotional contact is harder between generations because the brains of our children are different from our own. Plasticity is the reason. 

Maintaining Ties to the Past

The younger Net Generation’s exposure to media and nonstop digital connectedness is going to result in a different brain structure as a result of the plasticity. As a result, they perceive and define reality in ways different from our own. Net Generation is our current youth who are growing up with modern communication technologies.

Increasingly frenetic cultures truncate the experience of time, too, when a person’s sense of time and place is altered by technology. The “now” is spread all over the world timewise because of technological changes.

These factors make it all the more important to maintain emotional linkages with our past and cultivate our emotional memory. Emotional memory becomes increasingly elusive the further we dig into the past. 

This loss is gradual; graceful degradation means it doesn’t suddenly go off the map, but rather it becomes less clear as time passes. To experience the loss of emotional memory, page through some personal pictures, starting with something that was taken perhaps a few weeks ago on vacation and then looking at something going back a few years. 

Emotional memory loss can also exist alongside perfectly preserved general memories. This results in a developmental blockage. 

We can no longer communicate with our earlier self, and the thoughts, feelings, and desires of those earlier times are lost to us. We lose a sense of personal integration.

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.