9 facts about emotional memories and recall

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Real human brain
A real human brain displayed as part of new exhibition at the Bristol attraction March 8, 2011 in Bristol, England.
Matt Cardy | Getty Images

Memory sometimes fails us: We can't remember where we set our keys, or how we know that woman at the party. But what about the memories we're sure are real and remember vividly?

New science shows that when memories are attached to particularly emotional events, we're more likely to create a false memory. Two experts joined MPR News' Kerri Miller to talk about the malleability of memory.

9 things to know about memory and recall

1. Your memories of highly emotional or traumatic events aren't much different from other memories.

Elizabeth Phelps, professor of psychology and neural science and the director of the Phelps Lab at New York University, said these memories, known as flashbulb memories, are distinguished from others because we have extreme confidence in their accuracy.

2. You start developing flashbulb memories around age 8.

Elizabeth Kensinger, professor of psychology and the director of the cognitive and affective neuroscience lab at Boston College, said flashbulb memories usually start around age 8 and require you to understand at the time of the event that it is significant.

3. One year after an event, 50 percent of the details you can recall change.

You're more likely to remember details related to time and place, Phelps said. Researchers believe this is due to the type of cells in your hippocampus, the part of your brain that's important for memory storage. You're less likely to remember what you did immediately before or after that event, or who you were with.

4. Humans are terrible at remembering how they felt at the moment.

Phelps said this is likely due to it being an internal element of the memory. Each time you recall the memory, your feelings about the event can change and get associated with this memory. Kensinger's example: People who were interviewed before the Y2K scare who expressed great concern later remembered being less concerned when asked to recall that moment later.

5. Media can influence your memories.

Phelps discussed memories related to the 9/11 attacks.

From Scientific American:

An explicit example is that we also asked, "Where was President Bush when the attack happened?" Eighty-seven percent of people were accurate immediately after 9/11--but they dropped off to 57 percent and then went back up to 81 percent between the second and third surveys. We know that was due to a lot of people seeing or hearing about Michael Moore's film, Fahrenheit 9/11, which went over all the details that occurred.

6. You shape your memories when you start telling others about them.

When you tell someone about an experience, even shortly after it occurred, you're shifting it from a visual memory to a verbal one. The words you choose to use can influence the memory stored. Did the car "crash" into something or "bump" into something? Researchers found that people who heard a car crash were more likely to estimate the car was going faster.

7. Shifting memories can be detrimental in criminal cases.

8. Researchers are testing drugs that could alter, erase or lessen response to memories.

There is a Radiolab episode about the topic that was recommended on air.

9. Do you think you have an above-average memory? Contact James L. McGaugh at University of California-Irvine. He does neuroscience research on highly superior autobiographical memory.