Episodic memory is your recollection of events in time and space. In contrast, semantic memory focuses on facts and knowledge like remembering the date and attributes of a historical event or algebra.
Have you ever wondered how two people can experience the same event yet recall it differently, or why you can remember specific memories with such clarity and sensory detail yet have a vague recollection or no memory of other life events? This variation and intensity of memories are almost entirely influenced by our emotions and feelings, the intensity of those feelings, and our ability to be ‘in’ the moment at the time of the event.
The Process of Forming Memories
Our world is comprised of data, of which our brains can only process a minuscule fraction. What does this limitation mean for our memory? It means we must filter. We subconsciously choose what information we want to keep and discard the rest.
For example, many of us have felt self-conscious about how others perceive us. When we feel insecure, we may assume everyone around us is judging us. An innocent glance from another person can make us feel that they are critiquing how we look. A laughing couple at the table behind us may make us feel mocked behind our backs.
Because we subconsciously seek to prove ourselves right, we will look for things to confirm our beliefs. The old saying goes, “whatever you seek, you shall find.” If we believe today will be a fantastic day, it likely will be because we will find things to be grateful for. The minor things that reinforce the idea that today is a great day become our proof: the smell of food, ample sunshine, birds chirping, enjoying music or a good book, or chatting with a friend or loved one. Similarly, suppose we assume it will be a terrible day. In that case, we are likely to focus on the frustrations we experience throughout our day (no matter how small) to prove that our expectations were accurate. In other words, we have created a self-fulfilling prophecy. And it is that filtered perception of that day that makes its way into our memory bank.
Senses and Emotions:
In addition to filtering data, our current mood and sense of awareness will influence how we encode memories.
When evoking a memory, you may recall what the environment was like—the smells, tastes, and sounds—and remember the feelings associated with that experience or memory. Let’s use a trip to a tropical island as an example. The hippocampus, which I like to refer to as the “objective encoder,” manages the perceived “facts” of the event. Was it hot, warm, humid? Can you recall the sunshine on your face and the sand between your toes? What about the refreshing taste of a tropical smoothie?
Tied to those sensory memories, you may recall a feeling of contentment and happiness; these aspects of the event are stored in the amygdala, known for processing emotions. Regarding memory, you can think of the amygdala as the “subjective encoder.” Together, the hippocampus and the amygdala create the whole experience, both the context and emotions associated with the memory. They also assist us in deciding how to respond to future events based on the context and emotions of past experiences—also known as top-down processing. For example, when we see a bear, our amygdala may react with fear.
However, simultaneously, the hippocampus analyzes the context of where we see that bear, ensuring we respond appropriately. If the bear is at the zoo, it would be inappropriate for us to react with fear; if it’s a grizzly bear in the wild, it would be highly appropriate to respond with fear.
How to strengthen your episodic memories:
If we want to strengthen our episodic memories, we must become mindful of the essential sensory data around us and how we feel. For example, if you are at the park with your family and want it to be a day to remember, focus on being present and mindful. Notice the smile on your child or significant other’s face, the way the sun glistens in their eyes, the feeling of the air or sun on your skin. What do you smell?
Maybe you smell the grass or dirt below your feet, flowers, or the food from your packed picnic. What do you feel emotionally? Are you content, overjoyed, filled with love and admiration? In that moment, connect with all your senses and tune into them with hyper-focus. Try to feel versus think. Do not think, “I need to find something to smell or feel.” Feel it. Be in the moment.
What to avoid if you want to develop strong episodic memories:
Short answer, put down your phone. Studies have shown that the more we live life through our devices, the less accurate and strong our episodic memories are. This is because we are not mindfully living in the present moment. Instead, we are too focused on taking the perfect picture and capturing the day to share with others on social media or reflect on later.
Ironically, we are missing the moment by trying to capture it. This lack of connection to events can lead to anxiety and depression. If you feel the need to take photos, limit them, and don’t become fixated on getting the perfect angle.