Memories of Emotions

My brain does not store emotions as memories. All I can remember are facts. I suspect that other people’s brains work differently, so I thought that it might be interesting to compare.

Here’s an example how it works. Once I had a dentist appointment during which I carefully observed how my brain handled the experience. It hurt. Yet the moment I get up from the dentist’s chair, I no longer had any memory of how it felt. I could only remember facts, I could remember the thoughts I had during the procedure (I knew that I was thinking “this hurts”), but I had no memory of the feeling itself. It got almost surreal—I knew that it hurt, but I could not remember how the sensation felt.

Unable to create memories of feelings, my brain has an amazing capability to convent every shitty experience into something not so bad. In the case of said dentist visit, all I remembered later was that the experience was no big deal. Since there was no memory of feelings, my brain converted the whole memory into “it wasn’t really that bad, it didn’t even hurt that much,” and my brain will do that without fail even when something does hurt like hell.

Here’s the only way how I can try to partially recall an emotion. Let’s imagine some person hurts me and I get angry. Several days later, I can remember the facts from said event. I repeat in my head what they did to me, what I said to them. By replaying this memory in my mind, I can feel a bit of anger, but this emotion is fainter compared to what I felt while said event actually was happening. The more time passes since the unpleasant event, the fainter emotions I can evoke by recalling facts about what happened.

For example, ten years ago I broke off with my first boyfriend. Back then I was hurt and upset and angry. By now all that’s left is indifference. Even if I try to recall facts about what happened, I just cannot feel anything anymore.

In addition, strong emotional experiences also desensitize me towards the same emotion in the future. Most people probably have experienced this in at least some form. The first time you are in an airplane and you see clouds from above, it is wonderful and amazing. The tenth time you are in an airplane, you are bored and wait for the commute to finally be over. This is commonly seen in children. At first some new (yet mundane for adults) experience evokes awe and wonder, but soon the novelty fades.

For me this happens also with emotions. My first romantic relationship (including the breakup) was rather emotional. The second time my emotional experiences were fainter and not much of an emotional rollercoaster happened.

Overall, I am probably also unable to feel some emotions. Or unable to feel them as intensely as some other people. For example, I had to read The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for university. It is a story about unrequited love. The protagonist falls in love, spends some months in emotional agony, then commits suicide. For me the book felt boring and I couldn’t relate to this, in my opinion, overly emotional protagonist at all. All those descriptions of protagonists’ emotions were too alien and unlike to anything I have ever felt.

Sexual desire? Sure, I can feel that. Excitement? Yep, I can become excited about spending time with some person I recently met assuming that they offer pleasant company. I am also capable of getting used to some person’s presence in my life and start to care about them to some extent. And if they were gone from my life, then that would upset and inconvenience me. And that’s about it. Judging from how other people describe love, what I can feel is probably not that.

My emotional experiences could also be more subtle or dim compared to other people. I can feel lonely, or excited, or happy, or angry, but I suspect that for some other people these feelings are more intense than for me. At least how they describe their emotional experiences sounds more overwhelming for them.

The way they express said emotions also looks more intense. Thus, either (1) they are more expressive than me during communication, or (2) they are actually capable of feeling more intense emotions. I will discard the third potential explanation, namely, that they must be faking it for show. For example, if I watch video gamers streaming their play, they will often react very emotionally upon successfully finishing some difficult quest or obtaining a rare item. If I felt absolutely nothing while playing a video game, it wouldn’t bother with games, but I have never wanted to yell during a game.

I suspect that the way how my memory functions probably offers me at least partial protection from post-traumatic stress disorder.

I tend to think that I have been lucky to never experience anything traumatizing. To some extent, that’s true. I never experienced anything truly terrible—I haven’t lived in a war zone, I haven’t been sexually abused, etc. But there’s more to it. I have had some experiences that ought to have hurt a normal person, but they failed to work on me. For example, having a parent with an anger management issue ought to hurt a child, right? Instead my brain just rewired itself into the “I don’t give a damn that my mother is screaming yet again” mode. By the time I was five, my mother’s anger outbursts hurt. By the time I was fifteen, I no longer cared.

On some occasions, through sheer stubbornness, I converted what ought to have been a traumatizing experience into a moment of triumph. Children are supposed to get hurt when adults spank them, right? Not me. Early on, I learned that hitting a child is illegal in my part of the world. That meant I was allowed to fight back. And I sure did. I “won” several fistfights against adults. It usually went like this: Some adult wants to discipline me and hits me. I hit back. We exchange a couple of punches. I absolutely refuse to give up—the more they hit me, the more desperately I fight back, totally ignoring the pain from any hits they managed to land on me. The adult realizes that their attempt to discipline me isn’t working—unless they break all my limbs, I won’t give up. At that point the adult gives up. I have “won” the fight. My ego skyrocketed. In my childish naivety I believed that I must be absolutely amazing if I won a fistfight against an adult (it took me a while to realize that I wasn’t “winning” these fights, adults simply decided to stop). I wasn’t hurt or traumatized, I was absolutely happy. And did I mention my ego skyrocketed after each failed attempt to discipline me?

Of course, whatever “protection” I may have (I’m not even sure about whether I do have any in the first place) can only be partial. I have had a tendency to adopt problematic worldviews after experiencing unpleasant events. Basically: some people hurt me and afterwards I conclude that all people are jerks and act accordingly. Becoming a bitter, jaded, grumpy, and world-weary cynic while still in your mid teens is not exactly healthy. This might have been an atypical reaction to childhood trauma, but it was no less unhealthy compared to what happens with other kids.

Consider school bullying, for example. Most kids get hurt after getting bullied. Yet when my classmates attempted to target me, I fought back and thwarted all their attempts. I also concluded that I had to swim with sharks in this world in which the weak are treated like prey. This meant I had to be tough, show no weakness, don’t trust anybody.

Of course, such attitudes are bound to become problematic. For example, in university I encountered people who were friendly, invited me to parties, offered me free food. My first thought was, “What kind of scam is this? How are they planning to exploit or abuse me after I let my guard down?” That wasn’t healthy.

Another example: in German grocery stores, if you are buying very few items, people sometimes let you in front of them during checkout. The first time somebody offered me to pay for my grocery purchases before them, I was puzzled about why somebody would be nice to me for no reason. I was so used to verbally fighting against people who wanted to waste my time with attempted line jumping that I couldn’t fathom why somebody would want to do the exact opposite and offer another person to go in front of them.

Ultimately, how people remember events that have happened with them in the past influences how these life experiences will shape their personalities and behavior. And my observation is that not all of our brains store memories of our past the same way.


  1. anat says

    When I recall events that had strong emotional impact at the time, I also do not recall the sensation of the emotion, but instead a narrative about the emotion (when a certain former friend betrayed me I cried for 2 days straight – I can’t bring up the sensation of being so distraught, but I know it happened). I’m not sure how common this is, or even if I have always been like this. My sense is that I have become a lot more emotionally ‘flat’ over the last 10-15 years or so, thus perhaps before that I could recall emotional content better? I wonder if this is some kind of very low-grade depression that just dampens all my emotions, or perhaps signs of a creeping memory problem. My husband blames it on me spending too much time online, living a virtual life. Who knows?

  2. says

    I really appreciate these personal narratives of diminished sense of emotion, because I feel similarly (although whether it’s entirely the same is impossible to know). And emotional memory is another aspect I hadn’t thought about. This makes me interested to ask around about how people experience emotions in memory.

  3. Jazzlet says

    For me it depends on the circumstances in which I recall something, as well as how long ago the original emotion was. An example – I was twenty-one when my mother died, as the only girl it fell to me to sort out her clothes which all smelled of dried lavender from the bags she put in the drawers with them. For years after the smell of dried lavender made me grieved and nauseous, the grief is obvious, the nausea was what I had felt about “throwing” her clothes away – by sending them to the charity shop I felt I was rejecting a part of her which was extremely distressing so much so I felt nauseous the whole time I was sorting her clothes. The intensity of those feelings has declined over the years to the extent that I can tolerate dried lavender, though I still wouldn’t pick it as a relaxing scent (so much for the “wisdom” of aromatherapy). If I am depressed my recall of emotions is difficult if not impossible unless they are negative emotions, in which case I am able to recall them somewhat, although when I am profoundly depressed I don’t really feel anything at all. Otherwise I can recall emotions, sometimes too vivvidly, mostly a reflection rather than the full emotion, the appropriate scent definitely increases the intensity.

  4. says

    I wrote a post about feeling and emotion a while back and I had a little nagging feeling that had me pointing out that I had come to the conclusions about conflict. This post is a reason why. In relation to the idea of “unemotional” it works to point out the way feeling and memory works in general in contrast to bad ideas about emotions and reasoning, but there are places where these connections are different. Thank you for posting this.

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