Why Are Bad Memories Easier to Remember?


I have a notoriously poor memory when it comes to my childhood. I know I had one, of course, but individual events which happened to me are really hard for me to recall. General holidays and experiences are there but specific details just seem to be lost. But there are times which I do remember very clearly. Strangely, however, they’re predominantly the bad times. Not that I had many bad experiences in my history but they are the ones which stand out more in my mind. This got me thinking: are bad memories easier to remember? Turns out, yes! And here’s why:

Firstly, here’s a bit of very simplistic biology about how our brains create memories. We have a number of memory centres in which our experiences are stored through a combination of brain structure and neuronal pathways. The amygdala in the temporal lobe is activated by emotion and the greater or more extreme the emotion, the stronger the newly created memory becomes. This is an evolutionary tactic which helped our distant ancestors avoid danger and learn survival skills. We also have short and long term memory. Short term memories may only last a few minutes and are created through simple chemical exchanges between our neurons. Longer term memories are constructed within the synapse itself, the space between each neuron.

Our long term memories are formed from emotions. As humans we feel myriad different emotions every day but most of our lives aren’t particularly memorable and we struggle to recall much detail about the mundane parts of our lives after even a short period of time. That’s because the stronger the emotion, the stronger the memory because of the increased activity of the amygdala which creates the chemicals needed to build the memory within our synapses. Simply put, the more emotionally disturbing an experience is, the more ingrained it is on our brains. Tragic events, therefore, are often the times in our lives which stick out most clearly. War veterans, for example, often suffer for years with the memories of their experiences in combat, traumatised by what they have seen or done.  

One of the exceptions to this rule is childbirth. Let’s be honest, few women enjoy the experience itself of giving birth but once the baby is born, mothers rarely recall the pain which came before because the new overarching emotion is love for their child. This is an inbuilt survival mechanism within the body, without which the human race would have died out eons ago. It also shows memories to be malleable and can be influenced by emotions and experiences felt after the event itself. The joy of the new arrival eclipses the trauma of the minutes, hours, days leading up to the arrival itself. Memories can also be altered when we talk about them, detailed added and the stories embellished over time.

The clearest memories from my childhood in my mind are, as I said, not necessarily happy ones. I vividly remember the day Princess Diana died. I was seven. I was really annoyed that my favourite cartoon wasn’t playing because of some woman I didn’t know having died. My parents were more annoyed with their insensitive daughter who didn’t care about the death of one of the royal family. I remember holding my Granddad’s hand at my Grandma’s funeral in 2000 as we walked through the graveyard. I remember the moment my mum ran into the kitchen and asked me and my dad “have you seen what’s happened in America? It’s awful!” on September 11th 2001. It was my first week of high school. To be honest I don’t have many earlier memories than that – as I said, my memory is bad!

But humans can remember happy times as well. My sister, cousin and I spent hours laughing at people trying to pick up a £1 we had stuck with superglue to the pavement outside our holiday home. I remember the day my cat had kittens in our laundry hamper. I remember discovering a new rope swing over the river. I remember travelling on a Hovercraft with my older sister on my first holiday without my parents.

If our brains create memories from emotions, perhaps we can do something memorable for other people. The kinder we are, the better we will be remembered, right? Do you remember an act of kindness? Do you think you performed such an act which the recipient will remember? Next time you do something kind, post in the More Good Deeds app so you will never forget even if your synapses fail to create a long term memory.

Go, do, experience. More Good Deeds.