The link between emotions and memory (and how to use it)


The link between emotions and memory (and how to use it)

Often, our most vivid memories are associated with strong emotions. Is this something that teachers can tap into? If we understand the link between how students feel and how much they learn, could we use emotions to enhance memory and learning in the classroom?

Let’s take a look at the research in this area and what it means for you…

How do emotions develop in young children?

Before we look at their link with memory, we must understand how emotions develop in children - and when. An early study asked children to tell which emotions different fictional characters were feeling during a story. Results showed that the older the child, the better they were at identifying when someone was feeling sad, afraid or angry.

This may, at first, sound like bad news for teachers of younger children. Interestingly, however, there was no such correlation regarding positive emotions: children as young as 3 were already really good at identifying when someone was feeling happy. This finding suggests that the processing of positive emotions develops earlier than that of negative emotions. As a result, it may be that we can help students of all ages learn better through positive emotions.

To find out more about emotional intelligence in students, we suggest these blogs:

The link between emotions and memory

Recent research showed that 10-12 year-old children had a more accurate memory for positive videos in comparison to negative ones. Another study asked younger children to recall the words of stories and found a similar pattern.

Not only do positive emotions help students remember things well - they seem to protect them from false memories as well. This was the finding of a recent study that showed scripted cartoons to 6-12-year-old children, with either a positive, negative or neutral ending. Those who viewed the positive ending had more accurate memories of the cartoons than those who had seen the neutral or negative ones.

Similarly, another study showed that, when taught new vocabulary, children were not only better at remembering the positive words, but they were also less prone to errors when the new word was positive.

What does this mean in the classroom?

There are many ways to improve memory and learning, and chances are you have already heard about many of them. These include retrieval practice, spacing, interleaving, dual coding… and many more.

However, we now know that positive information seems to be memorised in more details, reducing the probability of false memories. Could there be a way to strengthen the effects of those effective learning strategies, by associating them with positive emotions?

The two strategies below may allow you to do just that…

Boost memory with positive reappraisal

If we consider the research described earlier, it seems that it is important not only to create a happy environment in your classroom, but also to inject positive emotions into the content you teach. One way to do this is to use a strategy known as Positive Reappraisal.

Positive Reappraisal is when students reinterpret an event in a more positive way than it was initially presented. In one study, a group of children watched a sad film - one part of the group were then asked to re-imagine the ending in a positive light, while the others were simply asked to wait for the next film. Afterwards, all children watched an educational film. The children in the Positive Reappraisal group showed better memory of it than the control group.

To use this in your classroom, ask your students to add positivity to something they’re struggling to memorise. For example, they could link it to a character or story they like, make it into a funny joke, create a song about it, reimagine it as positive…

This is also a great way to get students to engage more deeply with the material or even use the Production Effect, making more likely they’ll remember it in the long term.

Boost memory by creating curiosity

A great way to ensure your students will learn new material is to make sure they’re paying full attention to it right from the start - and what better way to do this than by creating curiosity?

A recent study showed this to be true, finding that the feeling of expectancy before learning something interesting enhances memory of it. Even more interestingly, it found that participants memorised more than the information they were curious about: they also remembered the unrelated facts that were presented during the anticipation period. The authors described this finding as a “curiosity vortex”.

Final Thought

Students seem to learn better when positive emotions are involved. You can use this to your (and their) advantage by creating a positive environment that will aid, enhance and accelerate their learning. Some great steps to take in this direction include tapping into their natural curiosity or relating the material in a positive way.

There are many other positive approaches to learning - here are some resources we recommend:

We would like to thank Flavia Belham for writing most of this blog. Flavia did a PhD on emotions and memory at UCL, and is now chief scientist at Seneca Learning. We think she is pretty awesome and definitely worth following on Twitter: @FlaviaBelhamPhD

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