Monday, January 31, 2011

Memories of Emotionally Intense Events

This week's posts are going to be all about memory. It's a popular topic in fiction, repressing and recovering memories, amnesia, flashbacks ... fascinating fodder for stories, right?

Today, I'm going to start with episodic memory for traumatic and emotional events. I'll use myself as an example:

The day after Christmas 2005, my sister and I were in a car accident. My car slid on a wet highway, straight under a semi-truck whose driver had made the ill-timed decision to turn left across three lanes of traffic. As you see above, the roof of the car was ripped off, the windshield shattered, and the driver's side was more or less crushed (see that lovely piece of jagged metal right where my face should have been?)

My sister and I were not seriously injured.

Afterward, as the paramedics tweezed glass out of our ears and hair, one of them commented that, when he drove up to the accident and saw our car, he expected to be transporting us to a Level-I trauma center. The news anchor who reported the story called it a "miracle". The firefighters told us to buy lottery tickets.

This is an example of an emotionally intense event. It had the potential to be truly traumatic, but we were fortunate that day.

What I remember about this car accident:

My sister shouting, "Get down!" as we slid. I think I yelled the same thing, but I'm honestly not sure.

Covering my face and ducking to the right as the hood of my car disappeared beneath the side of the truck.

Rip-shatter-clatter-scrape (that noise is probably the MOST prominent memory I have). Hiss. Funny smell.

Looking up and seeing the underbelly of the truck a few inches above me. Feeling surprised it was so close.

The sound of a car door opening.

My sister screaming, "We have to get out!"

Crawling over the passenger seat.

Looking down and seeing a package we were going to mail. Reaching for it, thinking I can't forget to mail that.

My sister shouting, "Leave it!" and pulling my hand.

Here's what I don't remember:

Hitting my knee on the dash, hard enough to rip cartilage. It took me over an hour to register the pain.

Getting pelted and sliced with shattering glass--and yet, I had cuts all over the backs of my hands and glass in every conceivable crevice.

The motion of the car as it was dragged along the ground and nearly crushed by the semi's rear wheels.

Anything about my sister except her voice and her hands ... but I must have looked at her. And I know her face almost as well as I know my own. But I can't remember it at all.

In other words, I have vivid, striking memories of certain aspects of the event (mostly, but not all, auditory). And I have no memory at all of others (mostly tactile and visual).

My memories of that accident are stronger than my memories of what I did that morning before getting in the car, what I did the next day and the day after that. But also--my memory of that accident is more detailed than most of my memories of what I did last week. That's most likely because the accident was a highly emotional event. My brain was bathed in noradrenaline. My amygdala (part of the brain involved in processing and encoding memories of emotion-laden events) was seriously activated. Therefore, my episodic memory for that event is strong. It's just not complete (which probably has to do with something called memory binding, and if you're really interested, you can find an article about it here).

Memory for emotionally intense events is usually pretty detailed and vivid. Sometimes overwhelmingly so. These memories also tend to be more accurate than memories of emotionally neutral events. But research shows that our personal sense of the vividness of a memory does not necessarily mean that the memory is entirely accurate. Sometimes people are really certain about the accuracy of memories that are, in fact, distorted in some way (that's the weakness of eyewitness testimony). Our minds are not video cameras (contrary to popular belief--one study showed that over 80% of people believe our minds accurately record everything and we just can't remember it all). We actually don't encode everything, and our recall of events is influenced by a number of factors I'll talk about Wednesday.

Are traumatic events or memory of traumatic events a key feature of something you've written or are working on? How do you portray those events or memories?

Also, check out Laura's Mental Health Monday post, as well as Lydia's Medical Monday post.


  1. Holy crap what a horrfying accident. It's so interesting how you explain your memories of that day and how the brain works to supress/recover, etc. Great post and glad you were okay. How terrifying!

  2. OMG! I can't believe you two survived that. Ducking. I'll keep that in mind if that ever happens to me. Though my van, I would never survive. Too high up.

    Great post! I'm looking forward to the rest of them this week.

  3. Wow. I'm so glad you made it. <3 And you totally cracked me up with the "I have to get the package" thing. Was that part of your shock, or did you really just want to mail the package?

    I wrote about a traumatic event. RD, anyone? And that's about it! I should write more ... I'm sure I could come up with something pretty terrifying if I wanted. Just last night I was thinking of writing something along the lines of 10 year-old-girl Dexter-type. Creepy!


  4. i'm glad you two are ok!!! scary!!

    for once a post that makes me feel like i did something right in a WIP! whoohoo! :)

    great points about the vividness and almost randomness (related to perception) of memories. i know when i remember high emotional events they are mostly visual and of the thoughts i had/ what i felt- i don't remember sounds or smells hardly at all... i bet that kind of thing changes from person to person based on perception... is that right?

  5. So glad you are safe. Period. Horrifying, but outstanding and post...

  6. Great post! Bookmarked.

    I'm glad you came through with so little damage!

  7. OMG I'm so glad you weren't seriously injured. And the post is stunning--everything you do and don't remember. Wow. Thank you so much for sharing this scary event with us!

  8. wow, this is really interesting stuff about memories! Love it! Thanks for sharing (what an ordeal! Holy cow!) your story.

  9. Wow. I'm sorry that you were in that accident but glad you made it out okay! It's so interesting to hear what you remember and what you don't.

  10. hi miss sarah! im just real happy you and your sister got out unhurt. yikes! how scary was that! im thinking memory stuff is pretty strange but it could be neat in a story for giving the reader some little hint stuff for how come a characters acting the way he is now. i could like to know more bout that memory stuff. are you gonna all of a sudden remember more from that accident some day?
    ...hugs from lenny

  11. So amazing that you and your sister weren't seriously injured!

    The details of your memory are fascinating. I've been in an accident, too, and am surprised by what is fuzzy and what is crystal clear.

    The opening scene of my book is a car accident and people have said that the MC wouldn't remember details. Reading your post is confirmation that some she would, and some she wouldn't (as I expected). Glad you are ok!!


  12. Hey, thanks everyone! Sorry if I scared you with my pictures.

    aspiring_x--yep, I think it differs from person to person, and possibly event to event.

    Lenny--it's unlikely I'll suddenly remember a lot more about the accident. I think I have all I'll ever get, and that's fine by me. Memory is a complicated thing, and it certainly is possible to have memories of something long forgotten under the right circumstances, with the right cues. It's also possible to develop false memories of an event, and I'll talk about that more Wednesday.

    Cyndi--yes, it's funny how small details sometimes stand out. Unless your MC suffered a head injury or loss of consciousness, it's likely she would remember details, if not the entire picture. Head injuries and LOC bring in oa whole different round of considerations, which I'm actually planning to talk about Friday.

  13. How horrible! So glad you came out of it okay. So true about some of the things we remember during moments of extreme duress.

  14. Wow! That was a narrow escape! Just reading it makes my heart race. Thanks for sharing your experience and excellent post, as usual. :)

  15. My family always gets huffy about how I have such a good memory for the bad things. But look! My mind has a legit reason for hanging onto the traumatic moments.

    When I was younger, I frequently fell back on recounting how my brother and I almost drowned when it came time to whip out personal stories for standardized tests and high school applications.

    (Also, those photos are terrifying. Sososoglad that you and your sister lucked out.)

  16. Interesting. I was in a car accident 23 years ago and still remember it.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author