Why do we remember unpleasant events so well

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Why do we remember unpleasant events so well

If we suddenly, for no apparent reason, start to get upset, angry or nervous – most likely, we were triggered by a sudden unpleasant memory of some situation from the past. Psychologist Aaron Carmine explains why this happens.

When we experience strong feelings, the “emotional” part of the brain (amygdala) remembers them along with many details of the events with which these emotions are associated.

As we grow older, these emotional memories influence the development of the personality, shaping our thinking, behavior and experiences. At the same time, we often forget the events themselves, which initially caused emotions and the production of certain hormones associated with emotional reactions. The task of psychotherapists is to restore the connection between the present and the past in order to allow a person not to “get stuck” in captivity of uncontrolled emotions.

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio once said: “We are not thinking machines that also know how to feel. We are sentient machines that can also think. ”

Often our reactions are based on past experiences and therefore do not correspond to what is happening now

Damasio proposed a theory according to which every memory stored in the brain has an emotional coloring. First of all, we recall what is associated with the most powerful emotions. In addition, such associations help make better decisions.

In the end, memory exists not only to preserve the facts of the past, but also to more reliably predict the future.

When an emotional memory is activated, we often say, do, and feel the same thing as when the memory “entered” into our brains. In other words, we react to the current situation as we reacted to what happened at another time in another place. As a result, we suddenly get angry, annoyed, aggressively defend ourselves or cowardly run away, for no apparent reason, refusing to assert our rights.

Often such reactions are not adequate to the current situation. They are based on past emotional experiences, and therefore emotions often do not match what is happening right now.

In unclear or ambiguous situations, the brain will look for something familiar in the environment, compare the current situation with the past in order to identify potential threats to our security. If the brain is unable to determine what is dangerous and what is not, absolutely everything begins to seem dangerous to us.

For our ancestors, hunters and gatherers, it was more important to remember the threats than the sources of reward

A person is biologically programmed to remember everything that poses a threat or, on the contrary, promises a reward. The pleasure or pain that we experience increases the status and importance of the memories associated with these sensations.

From the point of view of evolution, this is justified – events that cause strong emotions have important biological significance. Many of the lessons that we learn by increasing our chances of survival involve various emotions: for example, fear, anger or joy. And the hormones that are produced in this way improve memorization.

For our ancestors, hunters and gatherers, it was more important to remember the threats than the sources of reward. If they were not able to get something that was pleasing, then life did not end there. Species that did not notice the threats were dying. For example, if a bear dealt with our distant ancestor, his comrades remembered that one should not go to this part of the forest.

We do not remember all our trips to the store or trips to the gas station. But we will definitely remember if they try to rob a store with us or if we pour gas from head to toe, trying to refuel the car.

Memories not related to strong emotions quickly disappear, and what caused strong emotions, we remember all our lives.

About the Author: Aaron Carmine – Clinical Psychologist, works at the Urban Balance Psychological Aid Center in Chicago
Photo Source: Getty images

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