Emotional Memory Management

Positive Control Over Your Memory
By: Joseph M. Carver, Ph.D., Psychologist

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Every second we are alive, our brain functions. At a very basic level it and other aspects that allow us to stay alive and thinking. Emotional Memory Management , or EMM, is concerned with the thinking part of brain functioning. Almost every aspect of daily functioning is directly related to our memory. As you read this document, your brain recognizes words and provides definitions as you read - pretty fast operating when you think about it! While this discussion is not concerned with reading or word-memory, it is concerned with the manner in which the brain pulls memory files, makes those files, and how those files influence our daily life.

The following discussion is based on psychological and neurological research, combined with on-going theories regarding memory, thought control, and therapy/counseling. Several theories and the results of research have been combined by the author in a manner which allows the practical and daily use of advanced knowledge on topics of memory and brain functioning. As research in this area continues, the author anticipates new, neurological definitions of previously-labeled psychological concepts such as "the subconscious" or the various defense mechanisms.

While the underlying theories are very technical, the concept is presented in a nontechnical manner. After reading this information, you are encouraged to practice the techniques, be curious about how your file system works and observe it in operation, and make the most of the new knowledge and understanding available.


A psychologist does not need to inform individuals about memory, we all know what memory is. Memory allows us to recognize faces of old classmates, remember old songs, remember good times and bad times, and remember important information about events/experiences in our life. Much like a modern-day computer, the brain stores memories in a system of files. In the past, these files were thought to contain only information or data, much like the files in an office contain patient information or file in a computer contains words or numbers. As science advances, we are beginning to know more about the brain and how it stores memories.

Recent studies in neurology tell us that the files contain not only data/information, but emotions as well. In a manner that is still partially unknown, the brain has the ability to store not only memories but emotions as well - as they occurred at the time the memory was made.

Memory files thus contain two parts, the information about the event and the feeling we had at the time of the event. Graphically put:

Memory file = Information + Feelings at the time

How Memories Are Made...


Throughout the day, we experience a variety of good, bad, and in-between experiences. A specific memory area of the brain will hold memories for about five days, to see if they are important. Memories that are not important are usually "dumped" or erased after the five day waiting period. These erased memories can never be recovered. As an example, we don't remember how many times we turn on a light unless it shocks us or blows up.

A memory is stored in long-term storage or "dumped" depending on it's emotional value. From a neurological standpoint, emotions or concentration releases a brain chemical, called "calpain", that then stores the memory, basically "memorizing" the experience including the details (who, what, where, when, etc.) and the emotion present at the time. This is why we can easily memorize information in an area of interest but have difficulty memorizing dull or uninteresting topics. People with a "photographic memory" are felt to have more of this brain chemical operating or have better control over the release of the chemical.

Thus, in reviewing the two possible brain events that related to memory and our emotions:

Emotional Event --> Brain chemical release --> Memory file stored. Stronger the emotional, the longer the memory remains.

Boring Event --> Brain chemical not released --> Five-day memory only. Memory eventually erased over a period of time.

We can store and create memory with data only, as when memorizing spelling words or learning math. The brain will memorize with frequent repetition or constant use. However, if a memory file containing only data is not frequently used, the memory slowly fades away. Examples: 1) Can you calculate square root by hand? 2) Do you remember the names of all your high school teachers or classmates? In the second question, chances are you can remember those who also have an EM file!

Most of us cannot remember our many trips to the grocery store or service station. However, we will always remember times which have a good or bad value such as the time a store was robbed when we were there, the time an old lady threatened us over a can of green beans, or the time we spilled gasoline all over our clothes in one of those self-serve pumps. We don't remember washing our car unless that spray wand at the car wash facility got loose and just about gave us a skull fracture. In short, if a daily memory does not have a strong good or bad emotional value, it is faded out.

As years pass, we build up quite a file system. We build up a collection of good memories and bad memories. Our brain has the ability to pull these memories at the drop of a hat - almost instantly. As an example, read the following questions and watch how fast your brain pulls the file:

1. Name some songs by the Beatles.
2.. Where were you when the space shuttle exploded?
3. Where were you when John F. Kennedy was assassinated?
4. Who was your favorite high school teacher?

As you can see, your brain instantly pulls a file when a question is asked. Importantly, you have no control over what file is pulled, how fast it is pulled, or what is in the file. For example, younger adults and teenagers may have no "file" on the Kennedy assassination. They were not around at the time or old enough to make a memory of that experience. As an additional example, every older adult remembers almost every detail of where he/she was when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1949.

Those with emotional memories can not only give you the exact details, but a variety of random and irrelevant details surrounding the event. This is how powerful "emotional memory" (EM) can be.

Those of you with a "Pearl Harbor" file might have rapidly noted that the above date of the attack was incorrect, it should have been 1941. If you had a file for that date in history, you might have immediately noted the error. When we have no file however, our brain does not alert us to errors. This example is used to illustrate just how fast the brain can not only react, but notice mistakes. This is another automatic brain activity.