What do you remember about the important events in your life? Do you vividly recall every detail of the scene, who was there and what you were wearing? Or do you remember more of how it made you feel at the time?
If you remember something in your life and you can feel the emotions — good or bad — bubbling up, you likely are recalling the information from your emotional memory. On the other hand, memory that is more like a snapshot of a scene is known as event memory.
Individuals with dementia may retain feelings associated with events much longer than they retain factual details or visual images of events. If your family member has challenges with recalling information, you may benefit from understanding the differences between emotional and event memory.
Emotional Memory: Vivid Recall of Feelings
You’ve probably experienced having a flash of memory that caused you to feel an intense emotion — likely reminiscent of the emotion you felt at the time of the event. Recalling events can evoke the full spectrum of human emotion, from joy to fear, anger or grief.
Emotional memory may not evoke feelings that are as intense as those experienced at the time of the event, but the feelings still can cause great joy or pain.
Most people can put themselves into a pleasant frame of mind simply by recalling a wonderful past event. At the same time, memories can bring back negative emotions as well, including jealousy, envy, guilt or anger.
In many cases, negative emotional memories have more staying power and greater intensity than do the pleasantly remembered experiences. And a negative emotion like anger — even when connected to the memory of a past event, rather than something occurring in the present — can spur an individual to want to take action to right the past wrong against them.
Memories That Retain Their Drama
The concept of emotional memory helps explain why some memories can seem to stay fresh in your mind for years while others become blurry and eventually fade. Emotion is the anchor that keeps memories in our minds.
When emotion is activated, the brain begins to store details (as many as possible) about the related event and prepares for quick recall of the information. Backed by strong emotion, the memory often can pop up instantaneously, even years or decades after the fact.
Although memories associated with negative emotions sometimes can seem more vivid, the brain stores memories associated with both positive and negative feelings. During recall of memories, the brain uses its hippocampus and amygdala regions — the same ones responsible for coding emotional experiences into memories.
Researchers say the strength of emotional memories may have roots with our distant ancestors, whose experienced emotions, such as fear associated with encountering a predator, may have helped them remember negative and positive experiences so they could later avoid or pursue them.
In some cases, extreme emotional states, especially those that linger, can cause damage to the usual method the brain uses to process memories. If an experience is traumatic enough, an individual may re-live it repeatedly and be unable to store it in longer term memory or simply forget about it, resulting in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Event Memory: A Snapshot of a Moment
Event memory involves creating a mental image of a scene or a moment in time. Unlike emotional memories — which use the hippocampus and amygdala in the brain — event memories use the hippocampus plus sensory cues.
The defining trait of event memory is that it involves an event that occurred at a specific time. The memory can involve elements relating to all the senses, including smell, touch, taste, sight and sound. Typically, the memory includes details, and the individual often believes that the memory accurately represents the event as it happened.
The scene-based recall of event memory does not necessarily include a feeling of reliving the moment, and it can even occur as a summary of several events that the memory has combined as it encoded the information.
Memorable events in someone’s life often become encoded in the brain in “event clusters” similar to episodes of a story. The clusters may be close to each other in time or can have a cause-and-effect relationship that helps the individual recall them.
The modes of action of event memory help explain why people often can recall details of events from their early adulthood, adolescence and even childhood as they age.
Dementia and Memory
How do emotional memory and event memory apply to individuals with dementia?
Research into Alzheimer’s-type dementia has shown that in people with no memory problems, recall of actions they performed themselves is higher than recall of verbal descriptions provided to them about events. In individuals with dementia, so-called “subject-performed tasks” did not create memories in the same way as in study participants with no memory challenges.
For every human being, emotions and feelings play a significant role throughout life. Everyone experiences the ups and downs of pleasure, joy, fear, anger and grief. Most people can recognize feelings of love, and they know what dislike or even hate feel like as well.
The experience of emotions is part of what makes us human, and that doesn’t change when an individual develops Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Individuals’ emotional lives spring from the amygdala, in the inner portion of the brain. The brain’s cortex, especially the frontal lobe, helps keep the amygdala functioning properly.
Someone living with Alzheimer’s may feel strong emotions but may sometimes have less control over them. In some cases, this means that people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia are considered to be behaving inappropriately.
If you have a family member with dementia, you may have experienced them becoming upset for no reason that you can discern. It’s important to know that people with dementia may have retained and recalled the feeling from emotional memory but forgotten the circumstances that would’ve been stored as event memory.
Helping a Relative Cope with Memory Loss
How can you continue to best relate to your family member who is experiencing loss of memory? The Family Caregiver Alliance offers these tips:
- Understand that complete honesty may not always be the best policy if your family member is suffering from severe memory loss. When an individual has dementia, honesty can cause distress. For instance, the individual may believe that he is living in a different time or that her mother is still living. Sometimes, insisting on the truth can lead to unnecessary, emotional reactions.
- Don’t always try to use reason or rationality to communicate with your relative. Remember that the individual may be operating from a place of emotional memory without the usual modulating influence of the brain’s frontal lobe, and the response to your logical statements may not be what you expect. Instead, try being clear about what your relative can expect to happen next.
- Avoid asking for agreements. Expecting your family member to remember not to act in a certain manner again is unrealistic, because the individual likely won’t recall the conversation or the agreement. Especially in later stages of dementia, a better strategy is to modify the environment as needed to keep your relative safe and happy.
- Don’t offer too many choices. Asking what your relative would prefer for lunch might cause confusion, especially if the individual is not hungry or simply can’t express what he or she would like to eat. A better approach is simply saying that it is time to eat, since it does not leave the individual frustrated at the inability to answer a question.
Providing a Safe, Familiar Environment in Charlton
At The Overlook, we believe that every person offers unique experiences, memories and preferences, and we work diligently to respect individual dignity and choice. We offer memory care in Massachusetts, which provided by empathetic, skilled caregivers in an environment that feels safe and homelike. To find out more about our unique, personalized approach to memory care, please contact us today.