My Blog Friends

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Memories, emotional or cognitive?

There is evidence showing that we have different areas in our brains for cognitive memory and emotional memory. The interesting thing is that some studies have shown that emotional memory comes quicker to the forefront than cognitive memories. This means that when we start to experience a situation, if it is similar to past experiences, we remember the emotions behind that experience before we remember the exact details of the experience.

Before we go on, let's understand the difference between the two. When I say cognitive memories, I’m referring to the cognitive thoughts that we have about a situation, the layout of the room, the people that are there, what was said, the thoughts that we had, and other physical attributes of the situation. When I say emotional memories I’m referring to the feelings we had about the situation, were we angry, sad, happy, excited….

This means that when we go into a stressful situation, our initial reactions will be emotional rather than cognitive. Although not always bad, many times it can spell disaster for us and the situation we are in. This is why we are taught to take a deep breath before responding to stressful situations, to take time to think things through.

It is very easy for us as writers to get caught up with the cognitive reactions of our characters, because we are thinking about what we are writing rather than feeling. We need to remember that reactions are fueled by memories of past experiences that were highly emotional. Those emotional memories will often cause the character to react on an emotional level rather than a cognitive one.

Writing about the emotional reactions that characters have is a great way to setup problems for our characters. They see a person that is similar to their father who beat them every day, they see a man that reminds them of their father who loved them but he turns out to be a creep.

How do you react to stressful situations? Is it because of past experiences and what comes first the emotional memories or the cognitive?


  1. I am definitely one who feels emotional memories in stressful situations. I don't have a very good memory for details, but I can remember how it makes me feel. (Unless the situation is really stressful. Life altering stressful. Then I can remember details and normally I don't want to.)
    Thanks for the great post.

  2. The emotional memories definitely come first. After that first reaction then the cognitive takes over, which I believe helps us to work things out in a rational and analytic way.

    Love the new look! The green is restful.

  3. Sure, past memories and events influence me today. I get past most of them but a few linger. Sometimes in dreams and you wake up and think, "What a crappy dream that was."

  4. Good idea. I have emotional triggers when people mention certain things.

  5. This is an awesome post and certainly made me re-evaluate some of the scenes in my WIP. I've bookmarked it for future reference. Thank you!

    Ellie Garratt

  6. The emotional memory seems stronger to me. I tend to remember more of what I have felt in my dreams too. The feeling lingers, rather than the events of the dreams. I also believe that people don't really change unless they have an emotional experience to do so.

  7. Yep, emotional is stronger for me too. I really like these posts Josh. It will be very helpful to back reference to some of these kind of points and make me think about my characters.

    Really pleased to have found your blog

    warm wishes

  8. this is solid and by blending them we create more authenticity in our characters...

  9. How I react depends upon the triggers. I've grown over the years and I think I am better able to process before I react for the most part.


  10. Thanks everyone for the awesome comments. I really enjoy reading each everyone of your blogs and hope to see you tomorrow.

  11. I respond emotionally when something or someone reminds me of someone who passed away--it just hits me.

  12. Emotional responses are the hardest, because we sometimes don't even know what triggered our emotions, but we feel them!

  13. I am defineatly an emotional response kinda person, although from what you wrote I am sure most people are. It would defineatly make sense for things to be this way, and would explain alot of things for why I can seem so hormonal and random in my moods throughout the day! It all makes sense now :)

  14. Oh how I love this one! I love to describe my characters reactions in both of these ways. I consider myself successful if their cognitive reaction, the reaction that you SEE, is congruent with what they're feeling. Contrarily, it's also fun for them to force an outward reaction that doesn't match what they're feeling and be totally aware of the deception. I have an uncanny (and sometimes annoying) habit of remembering minute details about an experience from my past. I remember the weirdest little things sometimes! I like that to come out in my characters because I can attach meaning to why they remembered THIS, but not THAT.


Comments are what help us all learn together.

Friends Meetup Party - the perfect line