Emotion as a Judge of Attention, Personal Memories and False Memories

Emotion is a great part of our human experience and is often considered to be the opposite entity to reason. Interestingly enough, however, emotion is constantly intertwined with our reasoning in the way we learn and recall. The valence of our emotions sets the stage for how we learn and remember something. From recalling a traumatic car accident, or writing a final exam in the midst of a close family member’s passing, to studying for a final exam on the euphoric day of our birthday. All of these highly emotional situations will direct how we process information and how our memory is retained. So, can we fully trust our emotions to help us process information accurately, and then be able to remember them accordingly?

Let’s begin with how positive and negative emotions influence our attentional processes. Previous studies have shown that negative affect favours a systematic and analytical way of processing information, where as a positive affect will lean more towards a heuristic and holistic way of processing (Vermeleun 2010). A study by Nicolas Vermeulen (2010) put this to the test by using an attentional blink study experiment to measure attention performance on people with positive and negative affective states. He took into account the “boost and bounce” theory, which states that human minds have a gating system to help relevant information enter our mind and inhibit irrelevant information from distracting us from our primary task goal.

This experiment exposed participants to two words in the speed of milliseconds, along with multiple distractors in between. They would rate their affective state after mood inductions and would then be assessed on their ability to detect the words they saw. The initial hypothesis proposed that a negative affective state should inhibit the distractors and have a higher success rate in processing the information than those with a positive affective state. The results however, showed otherwise. The participants with higher levels of negative affect were less successful at identifying the second word than those who had higher levels of positive affect; in other words, we are more likely to not be distracted and to pay better attention when in a positive affective state than in a negative affective state (Vermeleun 2010). This experiment also considered arousal though in a minimal manner, and found that if the positive or negative affective states were both too high in arousal, then they both would perform less successful in the task. However, the study did recognize their failure to properly recognize the effects of arousal and focused more on emotion.

If attention is generally more successful for those under a positive affect as opposed to a negative one while maintaining a neutral level of arousal, does the same apply to our recalling of personal memories? Will our mood affect the type of memories we recall? According to previous observations, people in positive moods tend to recall happy personal experiences, whereas those in negative moods tend to recall more of unpleasant personal experiences (Drace 2012). One explanation that Drace claims for this lies under the associative network theory, which suggests that emotions organize memories based on their valence. The results of Drace’s study by inducing moods and then asking for personal memories to be recalled were aligned with the hypothesis proposed by the associative network theory; those with a positive attribute recalled more positive memories than those with a negative one.

That said, what about the accuracy of these memories? Researchers have explored this through the window of the false memory phenomenon, which takes place when we recall situations that never actually occurred. Both true and false memories rely on how the information recalled is learned which involves not only the perceptual interpretation, but the emotional state as well (Storbeck & Clore 2011). Previous research on this matter has stated the following: one, sad moods reduce false memories and two, sadness reduces people’s trust in their memory which results in a conservative approach as a response (Storbeck & Clore 2011). One particular study by Storbeck and Clore (2011) assesses the influence of affect not only on memory, but on the intensity of false memories by inducing happy and sad moods before and after learning words lists that were designed for the production of false memories. A control group with no mood induction was included to represent the “neutral” affect.

In one group, they induced moods before learning and in another group, after learning in order to separate learning and memory. If the mood was induced before learning, both learning and memory would be influenced, and if it was induced only after learning then only memory would be impacted. The results demonstrated that sad moods that were induced before learned and not after, reduced false memories. The study also found that high arousal such as happiness or anger both equally increased false memories as opposed to those with low arousal. Again, the effect of arousal while being separate yet related to emotion, was one that the study had a challenge properly measuring, as did the attentional blink study. All in all though, the study showed that sad moods did reduce the false memory effect more so than happier moods.

Many things can be said about the effect of emotion on our attentional processes, our personal memories and the accuracy of these memories. For attention, a positive mood creates less of a distraction; for personal memories, the valence of our mood will cause an equal valence for the type of memory we will recall, and for accuracy, a sad mood helps reduce the effect of false memories and critical allures. However, all of these studies share significant limitations. One concerning the way humans have adapted to ignore emotional information and regulate their emotional reactions in order to achieve the more immediate tasks at hand. Based on this, the results for all of their experiments could have been somewhat skewed.

Another question that arose for all of them was the topic of arousal. They recognized that while keeping a focus on emotion, arousal is very much related to the way affect takes place and it must be taken into account with an equal focus. However, while they are interconnected, they are still separate states and must be isolated from each other, this is something that has yet to be determined and the studies recommend it be properly measured in future experimental studies. In my opinion, emotion contains so much subjectivity that it is a complex state to properly measure. Having participants rate themselves depends greatly on their own consciousness, which is another factor the studies failed to consider. A participant must have a very high level of consciousness to accurately rate their emotion and arousal level, which is a common mistake for many people. I believe that for future studies, this is something that should be taken into deeper consideration in order to properly determine emotional factors. In final analysis, while we can draw some conclusions about the effects of emotions on attention and memory, there is still room for improvement, which will continue to be a challenge due to the complexity and subjectivity that define that which is an emotion.