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Memory Psychology: The Role of Cognition and Emotion

I am a psychology post-grad and freelance researcher who finds the human brain and mind an endless field of wonder.

The study of memory in psychology is rapidly advancing encompassing cognition and emotion

The study of memory in psychology is rapidly advancing encompassing cognition and emotion

Research in Memory Psychology

The study of memory in psychology encompasses both cognition and emotion with the influence of emotions being at the core. The development of modern and objective psychological study methods has renewed interest in human emotions, once dismissed by Darwin as ‘childlike responses’ and an area that was rejected by the behaviourists for its non-observable nature.

It is widely accepted that emotion does indeed influence the cognitive processes of memory and much research has been undertaken to investigate this further. Exactly how emotion exerts influence over our memory operation and ability is of particular interest.

Mood and Memory

Memory could be considered as a fragmented process in which encoding is the first stage and retrieval is the last.

An infographic of our memory and encoding cognitive processes

An infographic of our memory and encoding cognitive processes

Mood Congruent Memory

Mood Congruent Memory (MCM) is a concept suggested by Gordon Bower, a key research figure in the 1970s.

MCM is said to occur when the stimulus being encoded by an individual matches the mood state of the individual performing the encoding. For example, a person reading a tragic love story in a depressed mood state.

Mood Dependent Memory

A second concept is Mood Dependent Memory (MDM). In MDM it is thought that memory for a specific stimulus is much better if there is a match between the mood state at the time of experiencing the stimulus and the mood state when trying to recall the stimulus. For example, if trying to remember what was said in a heated argument, when an individual is angry again they will remember the details much better.

It is important to highlight the difference between MCM and MDM:

  • Mood Congruent Memory (MCM) can only occur if there is a match between the emotional stimulus being remembered and the mood state of the individual at the time of remembering. There is match between the mood state at encoding and the stimulus being encoded.
  • Mood Dependent Memory (MDM) is solely focused on the effect of mood on recall. Is not concerned with the material actually being recalled. There is a match between mood state at encoding and mood state at retrieval.

Psychology of Memory

MCM is a well-known and accepted phenomenon within the study of memory. MDM on the other hand, is possibly a more intriguing phenomenon as it appears less robust and is harder to produce and measure.

Bower (1981) conducted a number of experiments in order to try to recreate MDM in a laboratory setting. He used the emotions of happiness and sadness, due to their clear distinctiveness, and hypnotic suggestion as a method of mood induction with his participants.

In early studies, participants were requested to read a word list in their mood induced states. They were then tested on their recall of this word list after 10 minutes, while either in the same mood as they were the first time or the opposite mood.

The results showed that MDM was not present. It was concluded this was due to only one word list being presented. Bower claimed that just one word list was so distinctive that participants were able to retrieve it from memory despite being in an altered mood state.

Furthermore, he claimed that a common stimulus that can easily be confused with another or where the details could lost over time, such as a simple word list, is a requirement for MDM to occur.

Mood at LearningMood at RetrievalMDM Predicted Recall













In further experiments, Bower used two word lists to test this theory under the same conditions and did indeed produce MDM effects.

This replicated the results with student volunteers in Teasdale and Fogarty (1979) and earlier clinical based studies with depressed patients (see Lloyd and Lishman, 1975 and Weingartner and Murphy, 1973).

Their agreement of the presence of MDM confirms its existence and the studies of Bower enhance this evidence by suggesting that memory for distinctive stimuli may not be heavily influenced by emotion. This is why the effect can only be seen under certain conditions.

Depression can affect your emotions which in turn can affect your memory and recall

Depression can affect your emotions which in turn can affect your memory and recall

Depression and Emotions

The study of patients suffering from depression has been prominent in much of the research conducted into emotion and memory.

Clinical reports and laboratory evidence suggest that individuals suffering from depression are less efficient learners (Beck,1988).

It has been found that clinically depressed patients report feeling in a constant low mood and that all patients show a MCM effect. Specifically, they show a bias for negative material (Rutherford, 2005).

Furthermore, the MCM effect appears to be more powerful when the negative nature of the material is stronger than their mood and when patients are consciously aware of a connection between the material and their mood.

Perhaps the strongest evidence for how powerful emotion can be comes from suggestions that MCM may contribute to keeping someone in a depressed mood and showing signs of depression.

This idea was developed by Teasdale in 1988 who likened the pattern to a revolving circle; depressed patients see the world in negative terms and therefore focus on their negative memories. This in turn increases their current depressed mood state and repeats the cycle. Teasdale suggested that if this cycle can be disturbed, it may help to lift mood and ease the patient’s depression.

This is an exciting notion which has evoked an influx of research into the possibilities of such intervention. Moreover, it gives an indication of the extent that emotion can influence a cognitive process such as memory.

Semantic Network Theory: Interaction of Emotions

In an attempt to explain the effects of MCM and MDM in emotion and memory research, Bower developed the semantic network theory. This theory suggests that emotions are represented as nodes that interconnect with each other and produce outputs such as behaviour.

Activation of nodes can come from internal and external stimuli and transcends across the network via links between units. Bower claims some connections are inhibitory, which means activation of one may suppress any activation in another.

The Semantic Network Theory model attempts to explain the effects of MCM and MDM in emotion and memory

The Semantic Network Theory model attempts to explain the effects of MCM and MDM in emotion and memory

According to Bower, semantic network theory can provide explanation for how emotion and memory effects such as MDM are organised and function.

In the case of his laboratory studies, semantic network theory would mean that when a word list is learned by a participant, connections are created between the appropriate emotion node and the memory representations of the word list items.

Due to activation in the network cascading through the various interconnections, a participant will be aided in recall of the word list due to such activation from the appropriate emotion node.

This could also explain why, if participants are in a different mood at the time of recall, they find recall more difficult. No association link would be present at the time of recall to activate an emotion node and aid memory. Furthermore, inhibition of the memory representation from a different emotion node may take place complicating the process further.

Looking more in-depth at the processes of memory provides valuable insights into the usefulness of Bower’s semantic network theory.

Many studies have suggested memory is greatly benefited by the organisation of stimulus at the encoding stage, for example, categorizing stimulus due to their shared properties (see Deese 1959 and Tulving 1962).

It is a reasonable assumption that such a shared property could be an emotion or group of emotions that are associated with such stimulus.

Encoding Specificity Hypothesis Within Emotion and Memory

Theories emerging from studies of memory highlight interesting points when considering emotion and memory. The encoding specificity hypothesis was introduced by Tulving and Osler (1968) with relation to a study of the role of cues in memory and recall.

In their studies, participants were presented with target words in capital letters and in amongst those words were either none, one or two weakly associated words written in lowercase. Participants were advised the words in lower case may help them to remember the words in capital letters.

The results were that one weak associate helped participant’s recall of the target word as long as the weak associate was presented at the time of learning.

Such results suggest the encoding stage of memory is very important and cues or stimuli presented at that stage could have great influence during the later retrieval stage.

Memory, cognition and emotion interact with each other

Memory, cognition and emotion interact with each other

These findings echo the suggestions of Bower through his semantic network theory. If applying this theory to emotion and memory, it could be said that an emotion experienced at the encoding stage of experiencing stimuli, could be the associate link required to aid memory of such stimuli at the retrieval stage.

This is an example of MCM and highlights in memory terms the importance of associate links made at encoding. If such an associate link was an emotion, it is entirely plausible to consider when that same emotion is felt again the stimuli leading to encoding is better remembered.

Influence of Emotion on Cognition and Memory

Such evidence from the study of memory provides more depth to the debate of the influence in which emotion has over cognitive processes.

It is clear that in the case of memory, emotion is a very powerful tool. Mood Congruent Memory (MCM) and Mood Dependent Memory (MDM) are both effects which potentially show the power in which emotion has over memory and the size of its role within memory.

MDM has proved to be more complex in that in order for it to occur, stimuli requires to have some distinctive qualities. However, its presence has been found in numerous laboratory and clinical studies suggesting that as research continues, its existence may become as accepted as MCM.

Bower’s Semantic Network Theory mirrors the finds of Tulving and Osler's memory cue studies and when taken together, they provide a solid and stable foundation for the powerful role of emotion and its influence over the cognitive processes of memory.

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  1. Beck, A. T., Steer, R. A., & Carbin, M. G. (1988). Psychometric properties of the Beck Depression Inventory: Twenty-five years of evaluation. Clinical psychology review, 8(1), 77-100.
  2. Bower, G.H. (1981) Mood and Memory, American Psychologist, 36, pp129-14.
  3. Deese, J. (1959) Influence of inter-item associative strength upon immediate free recall. Psychol, 5,305-312.
  4. Henry, G. M., Weingartner, H., & Murphy, D. L. (1973). Influence of affective states and psychoactive drugs on verbal learning and memory. American Journal of Psychiatry, 130(9), 966-971.
  5. Lewis, P.A. and Critchely, H.D. (2003) ‘Mood-dependent memory’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol.7, no.10, pp431-3, in Offprints Booklet, The Open University, Oxford University Press
  6. Lloyd, G. G., & Lishman, W. A. (1975). Effect of depression on the speed of recall of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Psychological medicine, 5(02), 173-180.
  7. Rutherford.A (2005) ‘Long-term memory: encoding to retrieval’ in Gellantly.N, and Braisby.N (Eds) (2005) Cognitive Psychology, The Open University, Oxford University Press
  8. Mackintosh.B and Yiend.J, (2005) ‘Cognition and Emotion’ in Gellantly.N, and Braisby.N (Eds) (2005) Cognitive Psychology, The Open University, Oxford University Press
  9. Teasdale, J. D., Taylor, R., & Fogarty, S. J. (1980). Effects of induced elation-depression on the accessibility of memories of happy and unhappy experiences. Behaviour research and therapy, 18(4), 339-346.
  10. Tulving, E. (1962). The effect of alphabetical subjective organization on memorizing unrelated words. Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie, 16(3), 185.
  11. Tulving, E., & Osler, S. (1968). Effectiveness of retrieval cues in memory for words. Journal of experimental psychology, 77(4), 593.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 PsychGeek


Mike on June 08, 2018:

Ever wonder why we are looking for answers to all these new “era” problems to past researchers and data collected from mental research and predict to damn near 100% accuracy! Yet, not have one ,yes I said not one answer to why the growing problems that all this research and data has produced. If you are smart enough to understand what that sentence actually meant maybe there will be a chance for future adaptations to the psychi of one’s own mind. I’m writing this for one reason only is to guide care givers who care enough to give hope to society’s new classification to all the old terms that are obsolete in today’s day and age. Suicide, depression, etc.... that shouldn’t even exist in the world of old research and data that has been implemented for decades! From Freud, to simple life sayings, to complicated therapies that do nothing! Saying this is saying I do not have the answers but starting new wiping the white board clean even everything that has spewed out of the dahlia lama mouth clean off the plate .We are today we are tomorrow! Take AI predictions that your using and know that “the human mind is a terrible thing to waste”

PsychGeek (author) from UK on January 17, 2015:

Hi Jay, thank you for posting this information and link, that is really very interesting. We know that high stress levels can be very damaging to the mind and body and it is good to see some evidence that techniques such as RR can be effective in counteracting such effects.

Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on January 11, 2015:

Harvard Study finds that Meditation Impacts DNA

Published on April 19, 2011 by David R. Hamilton PhD

A Harvard University study published in 2008 found the first compelling evidence that the Relaxation Response (RR) – the physiological response to meditation, yoga, tai chi, Qi Gong or repetitive prayer – affects our genes.

Nineteen adults were long-term daily practitioners of various RR techniques, 20 were trained in RR eliciting techniques (breathing, mantra and mindfulness meditation) for 8 weeks, and 19 served as controls.

By analysis of blood samples, the study found that 2209 genes were differently expressed (switched on or off) between the long-term meditators and control group. Specifically, 1275 were up-regulated (their activity was increased) and 934 were down-regulated (their activity was reduced). It also found that 1561 genes were expressed differently between the group who did the 8 weeks meditation training, who were considered novice meditators, and the control group. Specifically, 874 were up-regulated and 687 were down-regulated.

In other words, meditation – short or long term – causes hundreds of genes to turn on or off.

Many of the genes were involved in cellular metabolism and in the body’s response to ‘oxidative stress’. Oxidative stress is one of the biological products of mental and emotional stress. It produces free radicals and is known to be involved in a host of disease processes, including atherosclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. It also accelerates aging at the cellular level. Ideally, we want a good response to oxidative stress so that we can prevent the negative effects.

In the study, blood analysis found significant changes in cellular metabolism and response to oxidative stress in the two meditation groups relative to the control group.

The scientists proposed that the Relaxation Response – whether it is induced through meditation, yoga or prayer – may counteract cellular damage due to chronic psychological stress.

Now, we have solid scientific proof of the positive genetic effects of meditation in that it affects genes that positively influence cell metabolism and the response to oxidative stress.

Here’s the link to the article. You can download the PDF free:

PsychGeek (author) from UK on December 17, 2014:

It is certainly a fascinating area and one I would like to explore further. I have always been particularly interested in neuropsychology - the connection between the brain and the mind, really quite remarkable how it all works. Fight or flight is an interesting idea, it would make sense that the emotion / memory connection is based on that as a foundation level.

Marilyn from Nevada on December 16, 2014:

I know that neuro-psychology studies the interaction of visual and audio perception and emotional experiences that cause changes in the electrical and chemical processing of neurons. Those in turn effect the perspective that is stored in memory. Personally, I had a bad experience in my youth that was traumatizing. To this day, when I smell a specific odor it triggers the bad emotion, then the memory, so I do think there may be a hierarchy system, maybe attached to the flight or fight mechanism.

PsychGeek (author) from UK on December 16, 2014:

Hi Marilyn, thank you for reading and sharing your experience. The brain is such a remarkable organ. It's almost like we have a filing system where memories are attached to emotions and when those emotions are experienced again it triggers the memories box to be opened. Very simplistic view but it works for me. I wonder whether there is a difference between good and bad emotions in how much they can be associated with memories and whether there is a hierarchy system of sorts for levels of emotions and where memories are ranked within them. Something for me to go and look up I think!

Marilyn from Nevada on December 16, 2014:

This has been very interesting reading, thank you for the information you share. While reading, I remembered an experience. Recently, while traveling across town, I heard a bird make sounds that triggered an emotion, and memory from childhood. I found it interesting that the emotion memory came first, followed by the total recall of that specific day.

PsychGeek (author) from UK on December 16, 2014:

Hi oceansnsunsets, thank you for reading and commenting! I'm so glad you found the Hub useful. I had hoped it would be interesting to people and if it can be applicable in any way to events or circumstances that is even better. Alzheimers is certainly a curious condition in how it affects people and particularly in one person next to another. Emotions are so powerful and I suppose are at different levels for people depending on what connections they have. I am sorry to hear of the loss of your father. I can completely understand how comforting it must have been for him to retain many of the memories he did. Thank you again for reading and sharing your thoughts.

Paula from The Midwest, USA on December 16, 2014:

I enjoyed reading your hub, and have a great interest in the connection between cognition and emotion. With so many struggling with Alzheimer's and the different dementias, this is of especially great interest, as my father lost his battle with Alzheimers a couple of years ago. His particular path was interesting, and it didn't look like so many others that struggle with it. His doctor said to us that part of the reason he did remember so much of what he DID recall, was likely due to his emotions connected with certain things. It varies with so many of course, but it meant the world to us because he remembered some of us to the very end, a gift not many have. I am convinced of the connection between the two, even when struggling with something such as that. I look forward to learning more. A lot of what you said makes sense in light of a lot of my own observations over time. (My apology if this is a second or duplicate kind of comment, my computer seemed to have a glitch and it looked like it disappeared after I edited the prior one.) Thanks again, wonderful hub!

Paula from The Midwest, USA on December 16, 2014:

What a fascinating hub. I am so glad you shared it. The video was interesting so. Our minds, our brains are so interesting to learn more about and all the complexity involved. To me, the study of these things are all the more curious as we are dealing with things like Alzheimers. Watching people suffer from that, and how emotion is involved at times was a very curious thing for me personally. Its great to see what possible connections are being made with emotions, and what that looks like, etc. Thank you for sharing this. I hope to learn more and more about it.

PsychGeek (author) from UK on December 16, 2014:

Hi Shanmarie - thank you for such kind comments. I am glad you enjoyed the Hub and it sounds like you find the world of psychology as interesting as me! I hope you will also enjoy my future Hubs.

PsychGeek (author) from UK on December 16, 2014:

Thank you mySuccess8, I am really pleased you found it interesting and useful!

Shannon Henry from Texas on December 15, 2014:

I'm a big fan of the psychology field. Cognative Psych was one of my favorite classes in college. I also greatly enjoy behavioral and developmental related psychology topics. It's all just fascintating! Plus, your hub in particular is laid out with a nice, easy to follow presentation. I'll be back to read others by you as soon as I get a chance.

mySuccess8 on December 15, 2014:

Science is making major advances in understanding how the human brain works. You have picked a difficult subject for someone who is not familiar with it, but you have managed to explain it so well that I find this very interesting and informative. We now know the effects of emotion on what we remember or memory retrieval, and this knowledge can be useful in our daily lives. Congrats on Hub of the Day!

PsychGeek (author) from UK on December 15, 2014:

Thank you Lady Guinevere for such lovely comments!

Debra Allen from West Virginia on December 15, 2014:

This is very interesting stuff you have here. I am going to bookmark it and also share it for you. More people should realize and know these things. Thanks for writing this up.

Sondra Rochelle from USA on December 08, 2014:

This happened to me almost 30 years ago, so it is a memory long tucked away, but thank you for your condolences.

PsychGeek (author) from UK on December 08, 2014:

Hi Dreamworker, thank you for reading and commenting and I am so sorry to hear about your husband. I can only imagine what a difficult time that must have been.

I think this is exactly where the power of that connection between memories and emotions is shown. We are surrounded by so much external stimulus that have connections for us personally, from things that you may expect to cause a reaction to everyday things that you wouldn't. Our brains really are remarkable in how such connections work and interlink together. The challenge I suppose, is to understand this as much as we can in order to find ways of managing these effects in the best way possible.

Sondra Rochelle from USA on December 08, 2014:

In reading this I can recall how my emotions impacted my mood following the death of my young husband. There is something referred to as "triggers" that are very powerful after the death of a loved one. For example, you can be feeling fine until you open a closet and see/smell an item of clothing that belonged to the deceased person. Suddenly, your mood changes because that vision/odor recalls a memory of better times. This is very powerful stuff.

PsychGeek (author) from UK on December 08, 2014:

Hi Sweepikez, thank you for reading and your kind words! I think emotions and depression are very important and agree this is an area that would really benefit from further research. Negative feelings are so highly linked with depressive disorders, if we understood more about the effects of mood and emotion I am sure we could be further forward in treatment and support.

Pinky de Garcia on December 07, 2014:

Dear PsychGeek,

This is very informative. Our memory might be the widest and living storage we have on earth.However, our memories depend on the intensity of emotion we experienced.

I would like to agree to the point you've included here that depression affects our thoughts on things. It makes our thoughts negative.

This is a very good topic for further research.This is very educational. I have my thumbs up for the studies you've peeped into and included.

Glad to read this,


PsychGeek (author) from UK on December 07, 2014:

Hi Catherine, thank you for reading and leaving such lovely comments, and a vote and share too - I'm really pleased you enjoyed the Hub and noticed the footnotes! Memory for me is one of the most interesting areas of psychology. I expect there will be more Hubs coming focusing on some of the different aspects involved.

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on December 07, 2014:

Very well done. Very erudite. I'd like to read more on memory. I never knew mood could affect memory. It may explain a lot. Very impressed that you included footnotes. Voted up and H+

PsychGeek (author) from UK on December 07, 2014:

DDE - thank you for reading and your kind words!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on December 07, 2014:

Informative and very well put together. You have opened my mind to another side of life.

PsychGeek (author) from UK on December 05, 2014:

Hi f hruz, thank you for reading and commenting! It is true I think if we had more understanding and ultimately control over our own emotions we could do so much more and probably behave so much better.

Our life histories and experiences are what makes us who we are and I find memories, particularly the bad ones we try so hard to forget, creep up at the most unexpected times bringing emotion along with them. The human mind really is a remarkable bit of kit!

f_hruz from Toronto, Ontario, Canada on December 04, 2014:

Thanks for a very interesting hub!

One aspect related to these issues is the degree of insight one can derive by examining ones emotions on an ongoing, critical basis to raise your own cognition as to ones intellectual freedom from emotional domination in your daily life so as to raise ones rational influence and control over your own behavior.

Having accumulated many memories in my lifetime, I can now see how most of them are stimulated into recall by environmental factors. They often trigger related memories based on the thoughts and emotions they may have brought along, many of which involve questionable emotions as a result of these situations, I would have preferred to avoid or resolve in hindsight ... yet, the emotions linger on as part of the memories! :)

PsychGeek (author) from UK on December 03, 2014:

Hi Mel, thank you for reading! I completely agree. For me emotions are what determines many of our actions and behaviours good and bad. Now if only we could understand this relationship better we could achieve so many things!

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on December 02, 2014:

I think that the bottom line for the layman here is that we pretend to be completely rational beings but our thoughts and actions are governed much more by our emotions than we would like to admit. Great hub!

PsychGeek (author) from UK on December 02, 2014:

Hi Thomas, thank you for reading and leaving such kind comments. I am delighted you found this useful. Interesting experiment definitely, I'd be keen to hear about your results!

Thomas Swan from New Zealand on December 02, 2014:

Thanks for writing this informative and important hub. I always commend those who write about the links between cognition and emotion. Too many people seem to treat them as mutually exclusive.

I actually want to test MCM and MDM (or something similar) in an experiment. I want to see how anxiety could improve the encoding and recall of some potentially threatening reading material from memory. So, it was very useful to learn about MCM and MDM from your hub.