In the Mood to Remember: How our Mood Affects Our Ability to Recall Memories

We humans aren’t perfect, and our memories are no exception. We all know that feeling when a word is at the tip of our tongue or when we struggle to remember what our childhood home looked like. We’re not computers; our memories, thoughts, and feelings are deeply intertwined.

Scientists have been chipping away at these relationships for decades (while philosophers have been pondering them for centuries), and have uncovered some interesting insights about how moods influence how well we can remember things from one moment to the next.

Before diving in to what they found, let’s look at how information goes “in” and “out” of our memories: memory encoding and memory retrieval.

Memory encoding is the first process that happens when you create a memory about an event or piece of information, and store it in your short-term or long-term memory. For example, an event might be that it’s your seventh birthday and you tear violet wrapping paper away from a large cardboard box to reveal a Nintendo 64 (best. birthday. ever!). You first need to encode that “event” so it can be a memory you can call upon later. Encoding also happens if you try to memorize a list of 10 words.

Memory recall, or retrieval, is the academic way to say “remembering.” It’s the process of retrieving a memory into the present moment. For instance, it’s your 35th birthday and you only got lame birthday presents, so you recall the fond old memory of getting a Nintendo 64 and how freakin’ awesome that box was. Or you might try to retrieve the list of 10 words you memorized, and find that you’re only able to write down 8 of the 10.

Mood Congruence: Good Mood? Good Memories

The mood you’re in when you encode a memory has an effect on how easy it is to recall the memory later. And, your mood state at the time of retrieval also impacts your ability to recall a memory.

One phenomenon being studied is mood congruence, the idea that moods promote the processing of events and information that “fit” with the same emotional tone. We’re more likely to remember happy events, words, and faces if we are happy at the time. Same goes for sad moods — -we remember negative information better when our emotions are shadowy.

Mood congruence works even for very, very old memories that have a negative or positive tone. People are better at remembering childhood events that match their prevailing mood (happiness and receiving an N64 go hand-in-hand), and depressed patients tend to remember negative childhood memories and have a better memory for negative things in general. Another study showed that when depressed patients memorize a list of words, then are asked to complete the start of a word (like “can-”), they use the negative words from the list more often than the positive ones (“cancer” instead of “candy”).

Depressed patients also remember sad faces better than happy ones. (Speaking of emotional faces, we’ve got a game in the Peak brain training app called Smile On Me, where you need to tap on the smiling faces as fast as possible and avoid the negative ones. Put yourself in the patients’ shoes and try it out!)

Mood-Dependent Memory

Since the 1970’s, scientists have been studying another phenomenon called mood-dependent memory. This is the idea that under certain conditions, people have an easier time recalling information if they’re currently in the same mood they were in when they originally encoded the information.

Unlike mood-congruent memory, this happens regardless of whether the information itself is happy or sad. For example, if you were over-the-moon happy when memorizing a list of neutral, boring words like “molecule” and “alabaster,” you’ll remember more of them if you’re similarly elated when you try to write them down (compared to if you were depressed when you tried to recall them). This effect holds even if you try to do the same thing with a list of negative words, like “cancer” and “disaster.”

In one study, university students were coaxed into moods of sadness or happiness. In case you’re wondering how they did it, the researchers played sad or happy music, had them look at sad or happy images, and ponder sad or happy ideas. Once in the mood, they went into the encoding phase. The students thought about 16 specific recent autobiographical events related to words like “ship” and “street.”

In the retrieval phase two days later, they put the students in the opposite mood or the same mood they were in while encoding, then asked them to recall as many of the 16 events as possible. Indeed, they found that the happy-happy students and sad-sad students remembered more than the students who were first happy and then sad, or sad then happy. This happened even though the events that they encoded were a mix of positive, negative, and neutral ones.

So what can you take away from this to become a memory maven? While there’s still a lot to learn, it sounds like the surefire way to improve your memory is to always be happy, both in the past and present, and only try to remember positive things. (Kidding.) (Though that might help.)

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