Node Smith, ND

Research on Memory is so Interesting

We all want to believe that we remember things accurately and that memory is dependable, especially when these memories are emotional. Many of us would attest that we remember extremely emotional situations with vivid and concise clarity – something often referred to as “flashbulb memory,” because it seems like a photograph in our mind. Instances like being stuck in a natural disaster, a tragic historical event, or hearing about the death of a family member are often remembered like this. However, a recent research study1is suggesting that the emotional intensity of memories can also lead to a higher likelihood to create “false memories.”

A professor at Ithaca College’s Department of Psychology, Brandy Bessette-Symons, has shown that while emotions can certainly improve memory, in some circumstances, it can also make it less reliable.

Series of 9 Experiments over Several Years

In a series of 9 experiments over several years, students were shown pictures intended to elicit positive, negative or neutral emotions. After different rest intervals, to test both short term (10 minutes) and long term (a week) memory, they were shown the same pictures again, as well as some new ones. The participants were better able to identify originals if they were associated with negative emotion. However, they were also significantly more likely to identify new negatively associated images as originals.

The Vigorous Effect of False Memory

Bessette-Symons states that “false memory is the most robust effect of emotion.” It’s not a question of emotion inhibiting memory, but that strong emotions help create memory for new things that may have not happened, or to perhaps change details in our minds. This false memory phenomenon seemed to be only associated with social pictures (pictures of people) and not with pictures of objects. Bessette-Symons offers a thought on this: “It could be that this bias component to emotion may only extend to social things, and the reason it only extends to social pictures is because it may be driven by an empathetic component of emotion.” Many research studies on memory have utilized only pictures of objects, which could be drastically impacting our knowledge of how memory is shaped by social interaction and context.


Bessette-symons BA. The robustness of false memory for emotional pictures. Memory. 2017;:1-18.

Image Copyright: <a href=’’>aletia / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Node Smith, ND, is a naturopathic physician in Portland, OR and associate editor for NDNR. He has been instrumental in maintaining a firm connection to the philosophy and heritage of naturopathic medicine among the next generation of docs. He helped found the first multi-generational experiential retreat, which brings elders, alumni, and students together for a weekend camp-out where naturopathic medicine and medical philosophy are experienced in nature. Four years ago he helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic ReVitalization (ANR), for which he serves as the board chairman. ANR has a mission to inspire health practitioners to embody the naturopathic principles through experiential education. Node also has a firm belief that the next era of naturopathic medicine will see a resurgence of in-patient facilities which use fasting, earthing, hydrotherapy and homeopathy to bring people back from chronic diseases of modern living; he is involved in numerous conversations and projects to bring about this vision.

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