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The Effects of Emotion, Imagery and Negative Feelings on Memory Retrieval

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The Effects of Emotion, Imagery and Negative Feelings on Memory Retrieval

My Memory
Here I was, at the 2013 U.S. Synchronized Figure Skating Championships, standing in the well-known “kiss and cry” area with my team. We just skated our second program of the competition, the long program, and it felt absolutely incredible. I remember completing each element and taking a deep breath of relief each time knowing we made it through another section of our program without a fall. Our team’s goal this season was a pewter medal, 4th place, and we were moments away from achieving it. The short program, which we skated the night before, was also incredible and it gave us close to a four point lead ahead of the team behind us. All we needed to do was get our scores and celebrate.
I remember the image of the stands where our organization’s younger team and our parents stood, cheering and going crazy and waiting for our scores as well. Brooke and Alexis had those silly Shamu whale costumes on in honor of our music to a song from one of the SeaWorld shows. They started doing that silly Shamu hand signal and the rest of our cheering section did it too. I held the hands of two of my teammates, one of them my sister, tighter than I’ve held anything in my life. We stood there, anxious, staring at the screen hanging above the crowd, waiting and waiting for the announcer to come on and our scores to appear. They showed recaps of some of our best moves we performed just a few minutes ago and we stood there huddled, knowing it was enough to keep that fourth place position.
The announcer came on, “and the scores for the ICE’Kateers…” The technical element score came up and I knew it was significantly higher than what we earned at our previous competition. Then the program component score popped up; once again it was significantly higher. I bounced in my knees in excitement and squeezed just a little harder, waiting for that “Currently in 4th Place” to appear. Just seconds later my heart nearly stopped; I felt like I could not breathe. Seeing that “5th” appear on the screen immediately tore me apart. If the camera could have zoomed in on my mouth, I’m sure the entire arena would have seen me mouth the infamous “f bomb.” I looked at the difference in our scores and the 4th place team’s; it was a .32 difference. When your combined point total is about 155 points and you miss it by .32 points, it is absolutely devastating. I held in my tears and looked back to see the reactions of my coaches; I could see the disappointment in Kathi’s eyes and John turned his back before I was even able to look at his face.
Slowly, we exited the ice and put on our blade guards. The tears came streaming down half of our team’s faces, but I just kept my eyes on Kathi. I felt like she was going to tell me this was an awful joke; that there was a mistake and she was going to argue and put up a fight because we sure as hell deserved that medal. Our team had never been so broken apart. We walked in silence around the rink to get our photo taken. When we reached the photographer, the team that beat us by a lousy .32 points was walking to take the ice with the three other medalists. That should have been us. We took our pictures and I finally spoke a word to my sister; I could not even cry at this point as I just felt this entire process was such a joke. We worked our butts off for an entire season for this outcome? I made eye contact with John as we took the last length of the rink back to the locker room and I gave him a smirk. I knew exactly what the smirk meant; this sport is so political and so subjective, so why the hell do I keep putting myself through this? We had such a strong and bonded team; I knew because of this loss we were broken and the organization was going to take an even bigger hit, but I didn’t even care.
Kim’s Memory
“Two of the best skates we’ve had at competitions all year turned out to just not be worth enough.” After a strong lead from the short competition, Kim felt like going into the long program seemed like a gift. She kept thinking to herself as the team lined up and prepared to take the ice, “stay on your feet, keep it together and we should be good.” She says, “We were good,” but after a wonderful skate, one the team would not take back for the world, the team stood in the kiss and cry and the tears of sheer joy she shed turned into a bitter sting. Kim called it “a feeling I will never forget.” She said it was the most confident she ever felt standing there waiting for the scores; the atmosphere was so glorious and so right that it did not even seem possible to leave the ice heartbroken. “I felt the entire rink was pulling for us; I could feel the support from our organization, but I also knew we had many teams out there wanting us to succeed and I could just hear it in the applause.” She said it felt as if everyone knew the ICE’Kateers were good enough and strong enough to earn that Pewter title and the only thing the arena needed was the reassurance from the judges. She remembers talking to her teammates as they awaited the results and feeling so excited, but when they popped up on the screen, she remembers saying, “be gracious, don’t look too upset and just be gracious for now.”
“We lost a spot on the podium by .32 points. The entire program was worth 99.5 so the .32 was a hard hit” she said. She felt herself doubting her abilities and she ached for her fellow teammates as they walked back into the locker room, obviously torn apart as well. “I just wanted to know how this was even possible; I wanted to wake up from it all” she said. “Then my heart started to throb. What about next season?” she wondered. Kim skated on the highest level team the ICE’Kateers have, the senior team, and also was a coach for two other teams in the organization. She wondered if she was going to be able to coach next season and if the ICE’Kateers would lose skaters to other organizations. “The feeling of pain and anger turned into panic and then heartbreak when going up to the stands and talking to our families” she vented. “I just wish we could start all over. Did we get low balled? What could we have done different to get that .32 back? We will never know.”
The two recollections Kim and I had are not far off from each other, but there are definitely different focuses between the two. Kim can remember the feelings and the discussions she might have had with other people. The event obviously hit her hard mentally because we immediately see that she has so many thoughts racing through her head that she can vividly recall. She remembers the negative and positive feelings experienced and then uses them to recall the thoughts associated with the feelings. I was able to recall more snapshots in my memory, like the picture of the two girls dancing around in the whale costume across the way. Emotional memories tend to make up a lot of an episodic memory, like the one Kim and I both recalled. An important note to make would be that because this event produced so many negative emotions and thoughts, it also caused Kim and me to think a lot; we thought about why this was happening to us, how the others around us were feeling, how we were feeling and so many other things. Conway (2009) would say that the negative feelings developed during the experience result from the Conceptual Self. We have these feelings because of goals, values, and images of ourselves that we construe. If we would have won that Pewter medal we would not have thought so negatively; the self-doubt would not exist. Would the memories be less vivid because we wouldn’t have those negative thoughts to directly think back to, which take us to a certain moment in time? Maybe we would we have simply been happy and less likely to analyze every little bit of the experience to a “T”. I know that both of us would have spent significantly less time thinking about what we could have possibly done differently to change the outcome of the event.
Considering the experience was so recent, the memories might be richer in detail than they would be, say a year from now. Why does my memory recall more specific detail, though? I remember squeezing hands and one of the hands I squeezed was actually my sister’s, but that is not an important aspect of the memory that she could recall when telling the story. Why did that not come to mind? When interviewing Kim and jotting down her memory, she seemed reluctant to spill her feelings and revisit this moment in time. I however, for the first time, actually cried. Retrieving this memory was difficult for me because I had not thought so much about it since the actual event occurred. Because I allowed myself to reach a similar emotional state as the one I was in during the memory, I was able to recall little details better than Kim was able to. Once I got into that state, it felt as if all of these little details about the night came flooding into my brain and I rushed to write them all down. Kim did not cry and did not let off that she was sad; she seemed angry. Kim was an emotional wreck during the aftermath of the competition as she cried and you could truly see how sad she was; I don’t believe she really revisited those emotions during the retrieval.
The present emotional state serves as a retrieval cue for that memory that we are trying to recall. Holland and Kensinger (2009) say that this difference in emotional state can cause bias and inconsistencies in the memory itself. If I interviewed Kim at a time when she was willing to revisit that emotional state, there may be a higher chance I would gain a little more knowledge about the experience and if I were to retrieve this memory during a time where I was less open to my emotions, maybe I would recall less specific detail.
The two memories both include visual imagery, but my memory illustrates a better recollection of the images going on around me while Kim’s memory is more of her thoughts regarding the situation. Conway (2009) refers to the idea that there are two perspectives to episodic memory, the field perspective and the observer perspective. The field perspective, the memory seen from the eyes of the person experiencing it, is typically the perspective viewed when recalling more recent memories. The observer perspective, the memory seen from the observer’s view, is typically associated with more distant memories. I find it strange that I can see parts of my memory from the observer’s perspective; it almost seems so familiar that it is possible for me to do so. Kim’s memory, mostly thoughts and feelings, is almost all from the field perspective, as you could not view thoughts and feelings from an outsider’s point of view. My recollection of the memory may be like this because after the competition happened, it seemed as if I distanced myself from the entire situation. I did not cry; I thought and thought and thought, but I did not allow my emotions to really take over as I analyzed every aspect of it instead. I don’t feel connected to the sport like I used to and I do not feel the need to dwell on it anymore. Kim, however, was still incredibly emotional for a good deal of time and she may not have had the opportunity to really look back on it and see it as something as meaningless as I did. It obviously does still mean a lot to me and it hurts; I can see this from the emotions I resorted back to during retrieval, but it may have been the way I handled it that allows me to view it from the observer perspective, rather than field.
The memories Kim and I recalled are episodic memories. Episodic memories are those which we remember and must travel back to a period of time to retrieve. We both went back to our memory of Nationals that we experienced in February of this year. Our recollection of the memory was a reconstruction of the actual event from what we can remember. This episodic memory plays into our autobiographical memory, along with semantic memory. This specific experience can relate back to other experiences like it, like Nationals 2012 for example. We experienced a completely different outcome, a national medal, and that previous experience may have had an impact on how we perceived the loss this year. Our episodic memories can be inaccurate when compared to other’s accounts of the memory. This is because we have different reactions and different thoughts regarding the outcomes of certain situations. Kim and I initially reacted similarly to the situation, but my thoughts about the competition moving forward were different than Kim’s. She was more concerned with the future of the organization, while I felt hopeless and truly lost interest in the process and dedication to the sport. Our recollections differed mainly towards the end and how we were going to move on from the event. Our feelings diverged greatly and those ultimate feelings still persist today with our future in the sport.
The analysis of my own memory of the skating competition and the analysis of Kim’s memory of the competition sheds some light and gives personal understanding of the concept of memories and cognition. The notion that negative thoughts strengthen the episodic memory truly makes sense; there is no reason to “over analyze” a truly happy event. I would not question the scores and replay the program over and over in my head if I was not so disappointed in the outcome. If you are happy with your outcome, you accept the resolution and you celebrate. All the smaller details become less important when you look at the biggest picture, the win. I have also gained a better understanding of how visual imagery can portray how well we have processed a memory and where we stand with that memory now. I can look back at that memory and see myself as an observer standing on the ice, walking down that hallway, and interacting with my teammates, but Kim’s imagery is from her own field perspective. The biggest aspect of the episodic memory that has given me a better understanding of the concept is how emotions play a part in memory retrieval. I can compare my recollection of the memory to Kim’s and see so much more detail. Although I could not watch myself recall the memory, I know that I felt awful while doing it. It brought tears to my eyes for the first time and I literally felt as if I was reliving that exact moment. Kim, more emotional than me at the competition, expressed less emotion and recalled fewer detailed events. This is a great example of how emotion acts as a retrieval cue for a memory and can gage how well you can recall. After gaining a better understanding of how emotion, visual imagery and feelings toward the event can affect the manner in which you can recall a memory, I can gradually become more aware of the process for future events in my life. I can also better understand the concepts in general after relating them to a personal experience. Memory can be delicate and needs to be “cared” for in order to keep them strong. They need to be paired with different stimuli and revisited often to strengthen the potential retrieval success.

Conway, M. A. (2009). Episodic Memory and the Brain. Neuropsychologia, 47(11), 2305–2313. Retrieved April 5, 2013, from

Holland, A. C., & Kensinger, E. A. (2010). Emotion and autobiographical memory. Physics of Life Reviews, 7(1), 88-131. Retrieved April 5, 2013, from

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