Cognition: You Have No Idea What Happened
Cognition is tricky. Have you ever related a memory to a friend or family member of a dramatic event you had experienced together, only to discover that their memories were completely different than yours? When we experience emotional events, we often believe that we remember exactly how things went down. Yet, as it turns out, we may not.
“Flashbulb memories” happen when a shocking, emotional event leaves a vivid imprint on the memory. In 1890, William James described these experiences as “so exciting emotionally as almost to leave a scar upon the cerebral tissues.”
A psychologist rating the accuracy of students’ recollection of events found the average student scored less than 3 on a scale of 7. One fourth scored zero. Asked about their confidence levels, the students scored an average of 4.17 out of 5. Their vivid memories were wrong. There was no correlation between confidence and accuracy.
Researchers have concluded that memories of emotional events greatly differ from regular memories. We remember the central details of the event very clearly and accurately. When it comes to the peripheral details, however — not so much. Our confidence in the memory is often stronger than it should be.
Memories are formed and consolidated in the hippocampus. When the hippocampus is damaged, so is the ability to form lasting recollections. Next to the hippocampus is the amygdala, central to emotional encoding. When the amygdala is damaged, basic responses like fear, excitement, or arousal become muted.
Something Jurors Should Know
An unreliable memory can be especially troubling at times when we need to depend on its accuracy for something important—for example, evidence in court. Juries tend to trust a witness’s testimony who is confident in remembering what they’ve seen. Perhaps that needs to change.[the_ad id=”2740″]
Three Parts of the Brain that Encode Memory
Communication between the amygdala and the visual cortex plays an important role in emotional-memory formation. The amygdala alerts our eyes to pay closer attention during an important event. The intensity of our focus, along with our emotions provides the hippocampus with a colorful input to work with. The amygdala may also notify the hippocampus to deeply encode this particular memory. Working together, these three parts of the brain firmly encode memories at times of emotional heights, which explains why emotional memories are stronger and more accurate than less impacting events. We’ll remember a kiss or an accident more acutely than an uneventful, ordinary day.
If memory is stronger during an emotionally-charged event, why do so many of us forget the details surrounding it? It seems that the vividness of the memory of the central event comes at the expense of the surrounding details. The strength of the central memory tends to make us confident of all the details when we should only be confident of a few.