Why do we remember certain dates so well?

Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news of:Wahine-disaster-1968

  • The Wahine disaster. It’s the 50th anniversary this year of that tragic event in New Zealand’s history. (Picture: Wikipedia)
  • Or when man landed on the moon in 1969?
  • Or when the “9/11 attack” on the Twin Towers occurred in 2001?

If you remember where you were on any of those dates, do you remember what you were doing on the previous days?

For most of us, the answer would be “no”.

Why does this happen?

Memories are partly formed by our emotions and so it is easier for us to remember dates when events surprised or embarrassed us, or made us particularly sad or happy.

“Emotion acts like a highlighter pen that emphasizes certain aspects of experiences to make them more memorable…. To make our memory stronger, it helps to attach emotional significance to objects and actions we experience.”  Read more 

How does emotion get involved in memory formation?

When memories are created, information is processed in several stages:
• First, we focus on the information so that the brain registers it – this is where feelings such as surprise or novelty, help.
• Then we need to process and store that information. A lot of information that we come by does not make it into our long-term memory. Creating memory traces helps here and events that are emotionally-charged have strong neural pathways.
• The third step is to remember that information. Interestingly, the mood we are in at the time of recall can make a difference to the type of information that we remember. That is why, if we are in a good mood, we are more likely to remember positive experiences. Whereas, if we are feeling sad, we are more likely to remember events that made us feel unhappy.

Does stress affect remembering?

Being able to remember certain events can be affected by stress. First of all, if the news of certain events was very stressful to you or you were feeling very stressed when you were trying to learn some information then you may not have been able to make a memory of it. Secondly, if you are under a lot of stress at the time that you are trying to recall some information then that stress can prevent you from being able to remember. If left unchecked, the more you stress the worse your memory will become.



Thank you to Lynette Mowlem, Researcher for Memory Foundation.

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