Role of Emotions in Memory and Learning


Think back to one of your earliest memories, perhaps a memory of being frightened as a young child, or being delighted by a new experience or sensation. Why is it that we remember certain events in our life that are triggered by a deep or intense emotion, but we cannot remember what we had for lunch last Tuesday? The way in which we relate to the world is so heavily influenced by our memories, and in part by the emotions in which we felt when we experienced said event. If once as a teen you were nearly hit by a car when crossing a road, you future interactions with road crossings is probably going to be a slightly more heightened event than if you had never experienced such an event.

The same phenomenon is evident in the way in which we learn also. If you had to write an English paper as a teen about the turbulent love story of Romeo and Juliet whilst experiencing a breakup with your high school sweetheart, the story will probably be attached in your memory forever, even more so because the emotions expressed in the story are very similar to what you yourself are experiencing. We have all had the experience of hearing a certain song or smelling a certain perfume whilst we are experiencing an intense, mind-rattling emotion- hearing said song in the future could be like reliving the entire event, physiologically and mentally.

So why is it that we can recall events or information processed whilst we are experiencing an intense emotion much more vividly than if we experienced the event in a neutral state of mind? How does emotion effect and influence our memory, and what effect does this then have on the way that humans learn, in an educational setting and in life? In this paper I hope to explore the way that we recall memory and what effect memory has on this recall, as well as the way in which we experience emotions and how we express or suppress these emotions effects our memory. Finally, I hope to look at the way this effects our learning power and how we can improve our learning through harnessing the power of emotion.

What exactly is a memory? Memory is the act of recalling information from previous events in your life that have been encoded and stored in the brain. We tend to have three separate levels of memory, short term, long term and sensory memory. Short term memory is necessary keep recent information fresh in our brain so that we are able to recall it instantly, this does however limit its capacity to small amounts of information, and our ability to recall this information is easily interrupted. Memory that manages to stay in the brain after the initial few seconds is considered long-term memory, and this is where the focus lies in terms of the effect of emotion on memory.

Emotions have a huge overall impact on memory. Numerous researches have been done, and it shows that even the autobiographical moments are mostly those that are emotional. Most of these emotional events are most likely to be recalled by a person who experiences them, and in much details than any other neutral or negative events. The emotions aroused in an event are more responsible in affecting memory, and not necessarily the significance of the event. The mind’s primary architect is emotions, and not cognitive stimulation (Moore & Oaksford, 2002).

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Emotions and Memory

Emotions affect the kind of events one chooses to remember, as well as influencing learning. The emotional content of information and occurrences affects the remembrance of the particular event. Generally, there is a basic and underlying rule and functioning of the brain that tends to make people remember exciting and emotionally charged events more than boring ones. The emotions aroused are the major factors influencing memory of an event, and not the relevance of the particular event. Consequently, the memory of images and events that are strong in emotions will always come first at the expense of other events in someone’s life. This effect is psychologically associated in women more than in men (Tugade, 2014).

Consequently, the brain treats these memories differently, as it depends on whether the memories were pleasant memories or bad memories. This general rule of the pleasant and unpleasant events, and how someone remembers them, varies across age groups as well as between genders among other individual factors. The pleasant events and memories seem to be forgotten faster than the unpleasant emotions, which stick in someone’s memories for a longer time (Moore & Oaksford, 2002).

However, for people who suffer from mild depression, both the pleasant and unpleasant memories fade equally. In adults, there is more regulation of emotions unlike in young people and children, and they may seem to encode less negative information as well as sweep it under and forget. Looking at most autobiographical memories, it is clear to note that in most of them, there is more sensorial and contextual details in positive memories than in negative and neutral events, in which case the negative and neutral events have no much contrast, and the situation is the same in many adults in spite of their coping conditions (Tugade, 2014).

Concisely, memory is helped by the emotional arousal, rather than the importance of an event. In addition, strong emotions in a person will always undermine the events that are of low emotions and information that occurred at the same time. The memories that are positive in nature will always obtain more contextual details, which then help in remembering them even better, whereas negatively charged emotions are not remembered well in comparison to the positive emotions.

Mood is an important aspect of emotion. It is the emotional state of someone at the time they encode information as well as they retrieve. Researchers have been trying for a long time to identify the effects of mood on memory, and it has been conclusively clear that mood plays a great role in influencing memory- in both what one notices as well as the particulars they encode (Tugade, 2014). The effects of mood can be viewed in two closely related ways, but subtly contrasting. The first effect and aspect of mood is that of mood congruence. This suggests that people tend to remember the things that match their current mood.

Whenever someone is depressed, he/ she tend to remember the negative events, and remember the positive memories when in good moods. The second notion is that of mood dependence (Moore & Oaksford, 2002). This notion implies that for one to remember something, their mood retrieval must match their mood at encoding. This means that the probability of one remembering an event is more likely to be influenced by their ability to evoke the same kind of emotional state they were in at the time of the occurrence or at the time when they experienced and learnt.

Most interestingly, is that he study of emotion dictates that the degree and manner in which our feelings exist within ourselves is influenced by the manner in which we express them. Nevertheless, this notion raises questions on whether those who hardly express and show it really feel it as much as those who express it openly, and on the degree to which expressing emotion affects the feelings we have. Research proves that in most times when people express emotions, they are likely to show what they feel.

The manner in which people control their reactions to emotional events affects their remembrance on the event. For example, people will be shown a film, and asked not to show any emotions, let alone feel, or express them. These people are likely to fail to remember clearly, what the film was all about unlike in situations where people are not given such kind of instructions.

Brain Regions involved in the emotion-memory relation

The amyglada is the most affected brain region as far as memory and emotions are concerned. This is the part of the brain that is tasked with calculation of emotional events. In addition, it connects to brain regions that deal with sensory experiences; hence, it also influences emotions on perception- by alerting us to notice events that are emotionally significant despite the fact that we might not be paying attention. In particular, the amyglada seems to be more keyed into events that have negative effects (Reisberg & Hertel, 2004).

There are many more parts of the brain associated with the complex interaction other than the amyglada. The cerebellum is also strongly associated with this interaction of emotion and memory, for its association with motor coordination skills. The cerebellum is also associated with memories and emotion, especially in consolidation of long-term memories especially of fear. Another part that appears to be involved is the prefrontal cortex (Reisberg & Hertel, 2004). Research has shown that part of the prefrontal cortex influences a combination of cognitive task and mood state. The dorsolateral cortex has been found to be more active in the event that unexpected responses surprise the particular individuals.

However, the relevance of the dorsolateral cortex and the effect on emotion is through surprise, hence raising questions on whether surprise really is an emotion, or attention. The two phenomena are at par in this case, although still woefully inadequate. The relationship between emotion and attention is certain in the functioning of the brain and in memory too (Tugade, 2014). In the brain, attention functions and emotional stimuli appear to move in parallel streams, then are integrated in a particular part in the brain’s prefrontal cortex- in the anterior cingulated.

This is the reason behind the easy occurrence of emotional stimuli than distractions in simple tasks like driving. In correspondence, emotional arousals are important in enabling a readiness to respond, as well as having an effect on the type of stimuli that we are supposed to encode. Correspondingly, attention can be viewed as an activity that can be triggered by different kinds of emotional arousal, as well as modulated by arousal (Pashler & Gallistel, 2004).

Details on the effects of emotions on memory are still foggy, although there are two things that can be associated by that. First, the interactions of the amyglada with stress hormones, hence influencing emotions. The other method is the manner in which amyglada alters most activities by the other brain regions, through principal processes like consolidation in the hippocampus. It is most certain that the emotional stimuli affect the manner in which we perceive and process, as well as encoding of the memory (Reisberg & Hertel, 2004).

Emotions and Learning

Most teachers will attest to the fact that most students concentrate better in subjects that they enjoy the most, and they participate in class in lessons that makes them feel good about themselves and their lives. Precisely, this kind of behavior is the enigmatic relationship between emotions and learning. In most cases, when parents and teachers are considering the learning activities of children, they put too much emphasis on the intellectual aspects, and hardly do they consider other factors like the emotions of a child (Quas & Fivush, 2009).

In most situations, students will exhibit neutral position in a quarter of their learning time, with the rest of the time being entirely dedicated to experiencing a lot of feelings , such as surprise, boredom, engagement, delight, confusion and frustration. Another counter-intuitive observed in children is that negative feelings and emotions often play an important and enabling role in learning. Confusion is a way of cognitive disequilibrium, where learners are mentally thrown off balance and the information encountered does not make sense.

This creates an uneasy feeling, which in turn motivates them to restore their equilibrium through things like thought, problem solving and thought; hence, the learner gains a deeper learning meaning of the topic and subject matter. Most engaged learners will normally experience alternate feelings of confusion and insight, and a back and forth between understanding and perplexity is the manner in which learning of a complex material will be achieved. Essentially, the lack of confusion may inhibit essential learning, and an intellectual ‘impasse’ is necessary for the students to experience for them to learn, especially if it involves complex things and disciplines.

The concept of enhanced learning trough emotion and confusion occurs in a situation where students are learning through observing a demonstration. These students can be asked to determine the outcome of the demonstration. The feeling of confusion is so important in learning environments, hence teachers and trainers should try to use it in classes, instead of helping children in avoiding it or even recognizing its presence.

They should aim at inducing the feeling to learners, although not in the manner in which the confusion is hopeless and students end up hitting a dead end and the impasses cannot be resolved. Productive confusion should be the aim, with alternatives considered in problem solving, and helping the child come to a solution in the end, as well as cope with any negative emotions that may rise. After some time, the feeling of confusion transforms to pride, elation as well as a feeling that may be termed as ‘eureka’ (Tugade, 2014).

Researchers in the education sector and psychologists are aimed at developing and determining these positive emotions, those that will positively affect learning in children. Quite the opposite of the notion that cognitive stimulus is the primary architect of the brain’s performance and learning: emotions are in essence the architects. The current education system in many parts does not recognize the importance of emotion in the learning process (Zembylas, 2005). This has transformed these institutions into sterile and mechanistic places that are devoid of the necessary emotional change that is needed in producing the kind of thinking and learning that is needed to be developed.

To have a scholastic education system that will produce the learning results that people demand, there must be an environment where students feel the emotion and passion of what they are learning (Cassady & Elisa, 2008). Failure by the information perceived in the environment to perceive emotional response, means it is perceived meaningless information, and will hence have little or no chance of being selected for storage in the long-term memory banks.

Confusion, stress, as well as arousal of pleasure in learning facilitate the learning process, and enables it even more. This improves retention by making the experiences even better, worthwhile and relatable to the students. Integrating emotions into the classroom is not hard and is important in solving even the most complex problems. Even in cases that may seem hard, a continuos involvement of the emotional dialogue will illicit passion and make grasping and retention easier (Zembylas, 2005).

Emotions is like a switch that turns learning on and off. Through using the emotional brain, and the limbic system, one can easily access learning and memory as well as get the ability to make connections. The limbic system is the part of the brain located between the cortex and the brain stem, and it is where emotions originate from (Cassady & Elisa, 2008). The brain stem is tasked with sending sensory messages to the cortex, through the limbic system, where most of learning and thinking occurs.

The manner in which information in its sensory form enters the cortex is determined by the interpretation of the limbic system, on whether the information is negative, neutral, or positive. A negative interpretation means that information will not enter the cortex hence learning will be inhibited. Relatively, a positive interpretation means that information enters the cortex hence learning is enhanced. Consequently, positive memories will lead to positive behaviors towards learning. In addition, negative memories are bound to discourage, disable and disrupt the learning process.

Concisely, the neurological effects of emotion not only show that cognition, learning and reason occur from emotion, but also the fact that emotion stimulates attention (Zembylas, 2005). The impacts tat emotions have on learning are multifaceted. Both learning and emotion take place in the brain, and the two are intertwined. Learning is the acquisition of knowledge. Thinking is required in learning. Thought influence our feelings. Feelings influence our thinking. Learning is consequent f the emotions created, hence, positive feelings generate positive learning. This should therefore be taken into account when handling learning in children (Tugade, 2014).


Cassady, J. C., & Eissa, M. A. (2008). Emotional intelligence: Perspectives from educational and positive psychology. New York: P. Lang.

Handbook of positive emotions: Tugade. (2014). New York: The Guilford Press.

Moore, S. C., & Oaksford, M. (2002). Emotional cognition: From brain to behaviour. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Pashler, H., & Gallistel, R. (2004). Stevens’ Handbook of Experimental Psychology, Volume 3. Hoboken: John Wiley ; Sons.

Quas, J. A., ; Fivush, R. (2009). Emotion and memory in development: Biological, cognitive, and social considerations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reisberg, D., ; Hertel, P. (2004). Memory and emotion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zembylas, M. (2005). Teaching with emotion: A postmodern enactment. Greenwich, Conn: Information Age Publ.

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