Saturday, October 8, 2011

Emotional Cues and Subconscious Memories

For about three years in a row, whenever February 20th would approach, I would get depressed. The first year it was for an obvious reason—it had been a year since Amy and I broke up. The second year I got depressed, not as much, but knew exactly why. By the third year, I had totally forgotten about the date. However, part of my brain still remembered. At the time, I was living in Putney, and I had driven up to Poultney to hang out with my friend Jenny Lee. I remember driving up there, and just feeling bummed. I was like “wtf is wrong with me?” I had no idea, but I just couldn’t shake it.

Later in the evening, it hit me. It was Feb 20th! I had forgotten, but somewhere deep in my brain, some part of me remembered, and got bummed out about it. So crazy that that can happen!

Likewise, the past week or so, I have been craving Papa Franks (a BOMB Italian place near my house in Burlington). I didn’t really put any thought into why I was thinking about it though. As far as I was concerned, it was just a random thought, missing amazing food. However, I was thinking about it the other night, and having VERY vivid memories of what it felt like in the restaurant: warm, humid, cozy. I remembered what the bread tasted like with a lot of detail. The only thought I gave this was “wow, interesting how strong that memory is!”

However, about this time last year, I had some very emotionally sharp events take place. After just starting to get settled in and feel good about living in Burlington, having a job I liked, and a few good friends, I got laid off. Devastation! That same day, I met Jacquie. Elation! All the while, I continued to go to Papa Franks probably once a week.

The past week or so, I have been thinking about how it is amazing that it has almost been a year since I left Vermont. It’s amazing how time flies! I remember the details of my house so clearly: what it was like to lie in my bed, what the window sills felt like, what it sounded like walking down the stairs, etc. I have also been thinking about how it’s so odd that I have only known Jacquie for a year. I remember after just hanging out for a week or so, thinking that I felt like I had known her forever-- A very odd feeling to feel.

Anyway, with all these strong emotional events taking place, the experience of Papa Franks got added to the mix. And so, while I remembered these emotional events quite clearly, since they were important aspects to my life, I didn’t consider that other aspects of my life at that time could have gotten caught up in the mix. They did, and here they are.

Apparently, the reason that I have been thinking so much about Papa Franks chicken parm and French bread is because its memory is so closely tied with other emotionally salient events of the time.

The lesson here seems to be that when you are going through something emotional, your brain will often also grab onto other somewhat insignificant events. Those insignificant events then get laced with that same emotional charge, and will bubble up with all the other stuff. Pretty crazy! Though, it’s not surprising, since your brain does things like this all the time, grouping a strong experience with something often insignificant (learned taste aversion, for example). So I have been thinking about Papa Franks for the same reason that I was depressed on the anniversary of my break up with Amy—it was connected with the memory of relevant events a year prior.

*I realize that this isn’t all that impressive or insightful, but I find it interesting, regardless. I also should point out that this is based on complete speculation!


  1. I ran across your blog while I was looking for information about whether subconcious memories can actually "creap back up on you". I have bipolar disorder (diagnosed in 1996) and I tend to get depressed around the same times of the year. Especially this time of year. I just yesterday put 2 & 2 together. I moved from Houston, Texas to my small home town in September of 1999. The following day my maternal grandfather died suddenly. While trying to adjust to the move and a new job and my grandfather's death, my paternal grandmother died and there was the nasty breakup with Dan, who was the person I had moved home from Houston for.

    Subsequently, at this same time of year in 2004, I had a psychotic episode that lasted a week. Every year since 1999, I have suffered from these "subconcious memory recalls" causing depression and anxiety, so don't think you are the only one.

    My psychiatrist asked a friend of mine, who is also a patient of hers, if there was some significance in her life as to her getting depressed at the same time every year, so the psychiatric community is catching onto this subconsious effect as well.

  2. Thanks for the comment! It's nice to know that I am not the only person who has noticed this. Though, I am sorry that it has effected you to such an extent!

    Maybe this sort of thing is news to the psychiatry community, but I can't imagine it is all that new to others in the field. Though, I could be wrong.

  3. I also started experiencing this lately. Have you come across any scientific literature? I am a psych student and am trying to figure this out.

    Please email me