Friday, February 26, 2010

Emotions and Memory

I was defending my Doctor of Ministry research project the other day and one of my readers, Ed Welch, mentioned something about the place of emotions in counseling. I said that I thought emotions impacted the various events in our lives in a way that made them stand out in our experience. The stronger the emotion we feel the more likely it will be that the event that gave rise to the emotion will be one we will remember for a long time. Our emotions act as a kind of carrier which make events more vivid and the memory of the experience more full. For example everyone can remember what happened at 9:00 AM on September 11, 2001, but not many can remember what they were doing at 9:00 AM on September 10, 2001. The reason might be that there has been a lot of attention given to the former date and not much to the latter. But I would contend that it is actually because there was more emotion associated with 9/11 than with 9/10.

When we think about particular events we were a part of when we were children, they are usually related to some kind of strong emotion that accompanied that event. The first memory I have as a little boy was when two or three fire engines drove down an alley next to our house with their lights flashing and their sirens howling. The arrival of the firemen was particularly emotional because I thought firemen made fires, not that they put them out. I thought they had come to light our house on fire. A few years ago, when I related this story to my mother, she also remembered the event because of my strange and strong reaction. Until the time I was telling her the story as an adult she didn’t understand why it was such a big deal to me at the time. She said I was barely two years old when that happened.

But our emotions don’t only make the events more vivid and help cement them in our memories, they also carry them to our hearts and implant them there. The Bible says our hearts are the core of who we are. It says the things we think, do, and say come about because of what we have stored up in our hearts (Mt. 12:34-35). Our emotions help store these things in our hearts. If we have a particularly strong emotional event, the memory and the emotions are transported to our hearts and there they sit, waiting to pop out in the form of more memories or even in the form of behaviors. Sometimes these memories are wonderful and we love living them over and over again. Sometimes these memories are ugly and we feel the strong emotions all over again and hate it. Sometimes the actions and behaviors that pop out are good, sometimes not. When a person remembers romantic events he shared with his wife, the emotions associated with that event rise up again and cause him to act in a romantic way toward his wife all over again. When a fellow remembers particular sins he has committed, those memories, driven by the accompanying emotions, can have sway with him and he might drift into a spiritual funk or even re-live or commit those same sins again.

Okay, so I had a point here when I started this. What was it? Oh yeah. Our emotions make the events of our lives more vivid and in the process the emotions cause the memories of those events to implant themselves into our minds and hearts. The stronger the emotion the stronger the memories.

There will be more on emotions and memories next time. I passed the defense btw. God is good.

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