Handbook of Cognition and Emotion

By Tim Dalgleish; Mick J. Power | Go to book overview

Chapter 11
Organization of Emotional
Memories

Sven-Åke ChristiansonandElisabeth Engelberg
Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

From an evolutionary perspective it is essential to recognize and remember emotional events and, in particular, unpleasant situations in order to ensure appropriate responses in maintaining protective, withdrawing or defensive behavior. Thus, survival has, to a great extent, hinged on some sort of emotional system that is fast enough to alert us to threatening or disturbing stimuli. The ability to quickly identify and recognize stimuli indicative of threatening situations seems to be based on partly an intentional recollection, mediated by phylogenetically and ontogenetically sophisticated memory systems (cf. episodic and semantic memory, see Tulving, 1972; explicit memory, see Graf & Schacter, 1985; reflective memory, see Johnson & Multhaup, 1992), and partly by mechanisms which do not involve consciously controlled processes (cf. implicit memory, see Schacter 1987; perceptual representation system, see Tulving & Schacter, 1990; evolutionary early perceptual subsystems, see Johnson & Multhaup, 1992).

With evolution, we also seem to have developed mechanisms which help us to inhibit or “forget” unpleasant experiences. To “forget” does not necessarily mean that the information is lost forever. Rather, we sometimes may have great difficulties accessing these events and bringing them up to a level of conscious awareness. There is extensive documentation showing that memories can be lost through trauma, for example victims of rape, torture, sexual abuse and war may show an initial psychogenic amnesia, but these memories may be successfully retrieved later on. Thus, memory of emotional events could be said to be organized along dimensions of consciousness. This chapter aims at elaborating on the thesis that emotionally valenced information is sometimes organized to favour conscious access routes and sometimes to favour non-conscious access routes.

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