Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Brilliant Memories for Dark Places

haunted house

By Oliver Baumann

We are usually not aware of it, but emotions exert a powerful influence over our memories by playing a key role in determining what we remember and what we forget.

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Did you ever wonder why you can remember some places vividly while others seem fuzzy and fade with time? The answer could lie in your emotions.

Most of the episodes we experience in life are tinged to some degree by our emotional responses to them. We experience events that bring us joy, sadness, or make us afraid. Several lines of research now indicate that emotions are key players in controlling the accuracy, vividness and longevity of our memories.

In 1977, Brown and Kulik published their seminal paper on “flashbulb memory”, a term referring to the highly vivid and detailed memories of the moment and circumstances that can result from experiencing or hearing about an emotionally loaded event. For example, people typically have vivid memories of what they were doing when they heard about President Kennedy’s assassination or the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

In very extreme cases, traumatic emotional events can even cause a phenomenon that is called hypermnesia. Hypermnesic memories are exceptionally exact, vivid and strong, and are associated with certain mental disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is thought that extreme levels of emotional and physiological arousal during traumatic events lead to these abnormally complete and vivid memories. The more intense the emotion associated with an event, the...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.