Every second we are alive, our brain functions. At a very basic level it maintains our breathing, our blood flow, our body temperature, and other aspects that allow us to stay alive and thinking. Emotional Memory Management, or EMM, is concerned with the thinking and memory part of brain functioning — and how we can use it to lead happier lives. This article by our Consulting Clinical Psychologist Dr Joseph M. Carver offers a non-technical look at emotional memory and provides practical tips which can help you establish positive control over your emotional memory.
How Files Affect Us…
An emotional memory file is a neurological/brain activity. The brain makes, organizes, sorts, and controls its files. Remember, the file contains two parts, information and emotion. After years of neuropsychological research, we have come to the following rules regarding file control. Each rule will be explained in detail:
Rule: The brain operates on chemicals.
These chemicals produce emotional responses in the brain and body. Just like a certain combination of flour, sugar, butter, and other foods can combine and produce a German chocolate cake, these chemicals combine in our brain to produce certain moods, reactions, and feelings.
Just like an automobile contains various fluids (brake, window washer, transmission, oil, anti-freeze, etc.), the brain operates on chemicals known as neurotransmitters. While the subject is too technical for this paper, it is known that these brain chemicals called neurotransmitters produce various emotional conditions. Like the oil in our automobile, neurotransmitters have a normal level in the brain and can be “low” or “high” depending upon certain situations. Some typical neurotransmitters:
- Perhaps the most actively researched neurotransmitter at this time, serotonin is known to be related to depression, headaches, sleep problems, and many mental health concerns. When serotonin is low in the brain system, depression and other mental health problems are produced. Low serotonin is also associated with bulimia, a severe eating disorder, where the body craves sweets and carbohydrates in a desperate effort to raise serotonin levels. Antidepressants, such as Prozac and Zoloft, work by increasing serotonin in the brain. As our serotonin level returns to normal, our depression lifts.
- Abnormally high levels of this neurotransmitter in the brain produce paranoia, excitement, hallucinations, and disordered thought (schizophrenia). Abnormally low levels produce motor or movement disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease.
- Related to anxiety and depression, high levels in the brain produce strong physical-anxiety manifestations such as trembling, restlessness, smothering sensations, dry mouth, palpitations, dizziness, flushes, frequent urination, and problems with concentration. A “panic attack” is actually a sudden surge of norepinephrine in the brain.
- Substances produced by the body that kill pain or produce a feeling of well-being. In marathon runners, these substances are responsible for the “runner’s high”. Also produced during pregnancy, a sudden increase near delivery-time creates that need to rearrange furniture, go dancing, or clean house.
The levels of these chemicals or neurotransmitters in the brain create our mood. A chronic low level of serotonin, as when experiencing long-term severe stress, produces strong depression. The low serotonin creates symptoms such as:
- Frequent crying spells
- Loss of concentration and attention
- Early morning awakening (about 4:00 am)
- Loss of physical energy
- Increase in thinking/mind speed, pulling bad memories
- “Garbage” thoughts about death, dying, guilt, etc.
- Loss of sexual interest
Emotional Memory files contain instructions for the brain to use these neurotransmitter ingredients to produce the mood in the file. We note that all antianxiety, antidepressant, and antipsychotic medications focus on changing the levels of these chemicals in the brain.
Rule: Thoughts change brain chemistry.
That sounds so simple but that’s the way it is, with our thoughts changing neurotransmitters on a daily basis. If a man walks into a room with a gun, we think “threat”, and the brain releases norepinephrine. We become tense, alert, develop sweaty palms, and our heart beats faster. If he then bites the barrel of the gun, telling us the gun is actually chocolate, the brain rapidly changes its opinion and we relax and laugh — the joke is on us.
We feel what we think! Positive thinking works. As the above example suggests, what we think about a situation actually creates our mood. Passed over for a promotion, we can either think we’ll never get ahead in this job (lowering serotonin and making us depressed) or assume that we are being held back for another promotion or job transfer (makes a better mood).
Rule: The brain is constantly, every second, pulling files for our reference. It scans and monitors our environment constantly.
You’ve heard people compare the brain to a computer. Like a computer, the human brain has a huge database containing billions of files (memories) for our reference. As you read this document, your brain pulls definitions of words or phrases. As we meet people during daily activities, the brain pulls their “file” for their name and related information. You’ll note that with people we haven’t seen for many years the brain recognizes the face first (a talent located in the right side of the brain) but often takes a while to locate the name (located in the left side of the brain). As the left-brain contains language and speech, it’s more crowded over there and processing is a bit slower.
If we travel to another city, the brain pulls up the map and landmarks. Additionally, if we are a frequent traveler to that city, our journey to Cincinnati, Ohio will pull files as we travel. Just sit back and listen to the “file pulling” that takes place on a trip. “Hey Mom, remember the bathroom in that gas station from last year — Uck!” “This is where that bad wreck was a few years ago coming back from the beach.” If the brain recognizes something (road, building, sign, etc.) — it pulls its file. It’s that simple.
Always on the alert and ready to pull a file, the brain has built-in protection behaviors. People who are shy and introverted (socially uncomfortable and withdrawn) tell therapists that when they enter a restaurant, people look at them, creating anxiety. It’s true. When anything enters our range of scanning, almost like our radar range, the brain looks at it. A person walking into a room is “scanned” by almost everyone else, and that scanning procedure taking about two seconds. The brain looks 1) to see if we have a file/reference and 2) for protection. If the new individual is odd-looking, carrying a weapon, or naked — the brain will start a full-scan and react accordingly (long stare, fright, or “Don’t I know you?”).
Individuals with physical features that are unusual will tell us about the common “double takes” they receive at grocery stores. At the same time, other people may dress unusually for exactly that reason. Some people enjoy the constant attention and double-takes that are produced by wearing a safety pin in your nose or coloring your hair bright yellow.
In the bottom line, your brain is always scanning and looking for references/files. These references are designed to help you, as when remembering an old friend, the location of the store in a mall, or when remembering needed facts/details. This is an automatic procedure, a reflex and instinct. To override or cancel this natural/normal procedure requires manual control. As an example, it is said that in a “sophisticated” restaurant, you know the diners have “class” when the busboy loudly drops a tray of dishes — and no one looks up! Now that’s overriding the normal brain response.
Pulling these files automatically is great — unless they contain uncomfortable emotional memory. This is where another rule is important.
Rule: The emotional part of a memory begins 90 to 120 seconds after a file is pulled.
In mental health situations, this is perhaps the most important neurological rule. Once we pull a file, after 90 seconds the emotional component begins. Our mood starts to change, returning us to the mood which was present when the file was made. As an example, remember someone discussing the recent death of a loved one. The first two minutes of conversation may go well — then they become sad. The longer the file is out (being discussed), the more the emotional component surfaces to the point that they will become tearful. If the file remains out, the exact feelings made at the time of the funeral and death will surface — they will talk about loss, love, guilt, or whatever other feelings are in the file.
As another example, ask someone about the biggest fish they have caught. When the file is pulled you will receive about two minutes of data, the where and when. Once the memory relives the catch, the person’s eyes will widen, their energy level will increase, they may begin arching their back as though illustrating a tough fight, and their entire mood and posture will move as though simulating the reeling-in of a fish. Again, after about two minutes, the emotional component begins to act on our brain chemistry, changing our mood/feelings back to that time.
Socially, imagine having a “bad file” on an individual in the community. You are minding your own business and shopping at Kroger’s. You turn the corner only to be confronted by Mr. X. What happens is this: your brain immediately pulls the file, you are somewhat confused at first, and your emotion of anger, fear, or whatever is in the file begins to surface. Even though you may not have seen the individual in 10 years, the Emotional Memory (EM) file is still active and wide-awake in your brain. This explains how many people can say that simply seeing an enemy or disliked person can ruin their entire day. If the file is not properly controlled, the mood will remain for the rest of the day.
The goal in file control is to prevent the 90-second emotion from coming to the surface. We all have bad files but most people try to control them by preventing the emotional part from bothering them. They do this by putting the file away before the two-minute time limit.
Rule: The brain only allows one file out at a time.
This rule of brain operation is easy to understand. Much like a television, VCR, or tape player, only one channel/program/tape is allowed to operate at a time. The brain works the same way.
As you read this paper, your brain is focusing on information in the paper. Luckily, the brain will focus on anything we choose, or will play any file or tape we choose. If you suddenly decide to stop reading this paper and watch television, your brain will completely go along with that idea.
Also, your brain can switch files at the speed of light. As an example, allow your brain to change files as your read the following sentences:
- Where was your best vacation?
- Who is your favorite relative?
- Think about the person who last died in your family.
As you read those questions, you brain immediately pulled the files to provide you with the information. The first two questions were rather routine and even if the files were allowed to remain open, would probably not cause much in the way of emotional distress or upset. However, what about the third file? If we allowed it to stay open, we may start thinking about departed grandmother, parents, or close friends. That file, after the two-minute limit, would make us feel sad, lonely, and create all the feelings associated with grief. Importantly, the brain doesn’t care whether it’s thinking about a departed relative or your favorite song.
Rule: The brain doesn’t care which file is active.
Like the body, the brain operates many times on automatic. Our breathing operates this way. We can take control of our breathing and inhale, exhale, inhale, and so forth. We can also ignore our breathing, the brain will switch to automatic, and we will breath anyway.
The brain operates the same way. It will automatically pull files as we go about our day. As we see fellow co-workers, friends, or neighbors, it will automatically pull their file — that’s how we remember their name and information about them. The brain does this automatically. Importantly however, the brain really doesn’t care which file is out. However, the fact that the brain operates on automatic is important to us.
When the brain operates on automatic, the files it pulls are greatly influenced by our mood. For example, if you are severely depressed, if your brain is left on “automatic,” it will pull nothing but bad, trash, and garbage files. When depressed, due to the brain chemistry involved, our brain will automatically pick bad files to torment us. Our brain will pull every bad file it can find, often far back into our childhood. As long as the depressed brain operates on automatic, it will continue to make us miserable by pulling every file which has guilt, depression, and a bad mood in it. It will play a series of our “worst hits”.
Remember, we can change files at will. Since the brain really doesn’t care which file is active, a depressed mood can be changed by simply switching the brain to manual, taking more control over our thoughts. This is especially helpful when a bad file is pulled accidentally. This fact will be discussed further in this paper.
Rule: Like the files, the brain only allows one feeling or emotion to be active at a time.
Again, this is a simple rule if we think about it. At any one second, the brain only allows one feeling. We cannot be happy and sad at the same time. As an example, it is almost impossible to be in a “romantic” mood if you are anxious, depressed, or fearful. In another example, pull a file on someone you think is romantically attractive. Get a picture of that person in your mind. Now imagine someone throwing a large snake on your lap. You’ll notice the romance immediately disappears and fear of the snake becomes the active emotion.
Many people have used this brain rule to deal with bad files. As an example, many people have bad files on certain individuals. Suppose we have a bad file on “John Doe.” The mention of his name, seeing him in the street, or any reference to this man brings up a bad file which has bad feelings — anger, hatred, resentment, etc. One way to cope with this bad file is to place a funny name or comment on the file label. In other words, instead of a “John Doe” file, we now have a “Beanie Weenie” file. You’ll notice that many divorced individuals have humorous names for their ex-spouse. This is the same principle. If we pull up a bad file but we have a funny name on it, it prolongs the emotion from surfacing and allows us to put the file away without any problem.
The fact that the brain allows only one feeling also allows us to have great control over our moods, more than we think. For example: A nasty neighbor calls and harasses us for some reason. We immediately pull the file on this neighbor, then another file as we are upset, and end up hanging up with a mood of anger, resentment, and an attitude of “I’ll break her face.” As long as we keep her file out during the day, our mood will be the same — anger, resentment, and so forth. In high stress jobs, for example, people frequently assure others that they don’t take their job home with them, that they leave the work, briefcase, and paperwork at the office. Importantly, while they don’t take the “work” home with them, they clearly take the “mood” home with them. They don’t bring home the briefcase, but they bring home the irritability, tension, and high-stress feelings.
However, if we choose to change our mood, we can do things like listen to favorite songs, look at a high school annual, look at vacation pictures, and do other things which will cause the brain to pull different files which have different moods — better moods.
Keep in mind, the brain will do anything we want: it will allow us to be angry the rest of the day or it will allow us to change its mood — it simply doesn’t care.
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