Monday, 9 August 2010

The effect of emotion on memory and personal narrative

From time to time, I intend to write about my own impressions and experiences, bouncing off articles I read online. I saw this article today, from Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian: This column will change your life: How real are your memories? The title is a little misleading, but the subtitle reflects more accurately what I wish to write about: When it comes to recalling experiences, intensity matters more than duration.

Burkeman in his article is writing about the ‘peak-end effect’:
a now well-established psychological phenomenon whereby we remember and judge our experiences, whether good or bad, not in their entirety but according to how they felt at their emotional peak, and at the end.
By the emotional peak, which is where I’m choosing to focus this blog entry, he is referring to the time of the greatest emotional intensity. In particular he makes reference to holidays, that we remember trips away as good or bad based on the most intense emotion we experience during that time.

I can vouch for this from my own personal experience. My trip to Oslo in May for Eurovision was filled with fun experiences with friends, and I know in my head that I had a great time. But my instincts tell me otherwise, because the sharpest memory is of one night when I was tired and wanted to go home to sleep. I was then told by a friend that I was boring to be around, and didn’t know how to have fun. That down period was strong and intense, and unfortunately it coloured my perception of the weekend so that now, looking back, my first instinct is that I didn’t have a good time. Rationally though, I know that’s not true.

The same is true of a previous holiday in Stockholm, when one night I just could not get into the clubbing mood and felt down and alone until rescued by a good friend. The remainder of that night was great, as was the rest of the holiday – but the moment that sticks in my mind is of being down and alone whilst the world had fun around me. And it’s made me strongly question whether I want to go again next year, in case the weekend is as ‘bad’ as that base part of me feels it was last time. I know it’s not rational, but memory and recollection are strong things, as Burkeman writes in his article, and those peak memories shape the recollection of the overall experience.

A friend asked me today if I could think of an example where I felt I’d been attacked or ganged up against on an online forum. I could, I gave him a firm example of the conversation and how it made me feel, and how it still makes me feel; that experience has since made me reluctant to speak up. He then asked me to give an example of a time when my friends there stuck up for me and supported me. I couldn’t give one, not a specific example. And what does that say about me? Am I a negative person, only retaining those negative memories and shaping my impressions on them? Or is it that those negative emotions were stronger for me at the time, and therefore have been the ones that have been the most clearly retained?

It’s a case here of memory forming one’s personal narrative, a topic I’ve always been very interested in, both on a personal level and an academic one, examining war experiences, for example. My personal narrative of these experiences has been negative, because of these memories and their associated emotions. Of course, this begs the question of what it says about me that the negative experiences are the ones that provoke the strongest emotion, and that the negative emotions are stronger than the positive ones, a level further than Burkeman goes in his article. Is it actually to do with the experiences themselves, or does the individual’s own psyche further contribute to one’s personal narrative?

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