Memory and emotion

5 min read

In my research into teachers’ beliefs, I often to return the idea of episodic memory which Nespor (1987) takes from Abelson’s (1979) paper on the differences between knowledge and beliefs systems.

Abelson suggests that information in knowledge systems is stored primarily in semantic networks, while belief systems are composed mainly of ‘episodically’-stored material derived from personal experience or from cultural or institutional sources of knowledge transmission (e.g., folklore).
Broadly speaking, semantically-stored knowledge is thought to be broken down or ‘decomposed’ into its logical constituents (abstract semantic categories —principles, propositional structures, or whatever) and organized in terms of semantic lists or associative networks. Episodic memory, by contrast, is organized in terms of personal experiences, episodes or events (Nespor, 1987, p. 320).

Nespor goes on to explain (drawing on Spiro, 1982) the association between affect, emotion and episodic memory:

… mood and emotion are stored as analogue representations of the experiential states associated with bodies of propositional knowledge. They function as a form of background coloration to content representation, the nature of which ‘corresponds to the nature of the felt experience’. When events are associated with a single or dominant experiential quality, their cognitive representation will have a relatively homogeneous coloration and one can speak of the event as having a ‘signature feeling’ (Nespor, 1987, p. 323).

Spiro argues that the ‘coloration’ provides a mechanism by which we can quickly associate events in front of us with similar ‘feelings’ in long-term memory. It allows us not be concerned with content and detail but with the overall affective character of the experience in memory and the events we bear witness to in the real world. This is similar to Johnson-Laird’s communication theory of emotions, that emotions are a primitive form of reason, that can result in culturally and voluntarily compiled responses (Johnson-Laird, 2006).

My purpose here is primarily to do some further scholarship on memory and emotion, to substantiate ore even challenge my initial understanding as set out above. Why is this important or why could this be important? As Reisberg points out:

The study of emotional memories provides a fabulous opportunity to explore the biological basis for memory formation, building both on what we already know about the biological processes relevant to memory, and what we know about the biological concomitants of emotion. The study of emotional memory also is crucial if we are going to understand autobiographical memory… (Reisberg, 2006, p. 15).

Emotional memories appear to be long-lasting and are more accurate than non-emotional or emotionally neutral memories. Emotional memories are important to us because they make us pay attention. Biologically, there is strong evidence of an important role for the amygdala (Reisberg, 2006). Studies of individuals with amygdala damage continue to find emotional images arousing, which suggests the amygdala does not have a role in attention, but in the way people consolidate emotional memories (ibid.). Reisberg steers to a conclusion that emotions play an important part in arousal (there is a considerable body of research arguing just this), but there is a significant psychological and cognitive role for emotion in the way we interpret and make meaning. Making meaning and sense making resonate with other contexts and approaches, see, for example Weick (1995) on the importance of how individuals make sense of themselves in organisations. Bruner (1986, 1990) makes much of meaning and narrative (cf episodic and autobiographical memory): the drive to make meaning is a strong intrinsic motivation.

Neuroimaging provides evidence for the memory enhancing effect of emotion, where there is combined activity involving the amygdala (the emotion-based system) and in the hippocampus and associate medial temporal lobe (memory-based system). Moreover, imaging shows that similar mechanisms take place during coding and retrieval (Dolcos, LaBar, & Cabeza, 2006).

The importance of this multidisciplinary work on emotion and memory, is the emotion, as a subjective account of affect (Massumi, 2002), is embodied, material, sensory and somatic. Emotion helps us make meaning, yet the tradition of humanism and Enlightenment rationality privileges the purely cognitive – the pure reason. Where I started with episodic memories with signature feelings has been enhanced, broadened and substantiated. Central to the human condition and ir/rationality is an embodied and affective experience.


Abelson, R. P. (1979). Differences between belief and knowledge systems. Cognitive Science, 3(4), 355–366.

Bruner, J. S. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. S. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Dolcos, F., LaBar, K. S., & Cabeza, R. S. (2006). The memory enhancing effect of emotion: functional neuroimaging evidence. In B. Uttl, N. Ohta, & A. L. Siegenthaler (Eds.), Memory and emotion: interdisciplinary perspectives (pp. 107–133). Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell Pub.

Johnson-Laird, P. N. (2006). How we reason. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Massumi, B. (2002). Parables for the virtual: movement, affect, sensation. (S. Fish & F. Jameson, Eds.). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Nespor, J. (1987). The role of beliefs in the practice of teaching. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 19, 317–328.

Reisberg, D. (2006). Memory for emotional episodes: the strength and limits of arousal-based accounts. In B. Uttl, N. Ohta, & A. L. Siegenthaler (Eds.), Memory and emotion: interdisciplinary perspectives (pp. 15–36). Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell Pub.

Spiro, R. J. (1982). Subjectivity and memory. Advances in Psychology, 9, 29–34.

Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. SAGE.


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