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?