Monday, May 13, 2013

Emotional Focus

Pop psychology has given us all the awareness that we store memories with strong emotional content in a different and more powerful way than most memories. Our brains seem to shine a spotlight on moments that are packed with emotional content. By doing so, however, other portions of our experience are necessarily left in the dark.

A couple of winters ago, I was driving home from work on a busy country highway when a deer ran into my car. It was a buck. I remember seeing its antlers first as it came out of the brush. It cleared the lane of oncoming traffic to my left before attempting to leap over my car as it traveled at 45 miles per hour (ok, 50). I barely had time to step on the brakes, but it wasn't enough. I can still see with perfect clarity the image of his huge white belly with my headlights reflecting off of it. It was so bright and white. He crashed down onto the hood of my car and then ran away. I can also recall pulling over to the shoulder and watching the face of the driver behind me as he slowly drove by, with a look of shock on his face.

After I pulled over, I called the police to write up an accident report. When the cop showed up, he asked me which way the deer went, and I confidently responded that he had continued in his course, off to my right. Together, the cop and I searched under the pine trees in the yard with our flash lights. (There was actually a dead doe tied up under one of them, which was surprising, but she had been shot recently). As I tramped through the yard, looking for the deer so he could be put down, I went through the scene in my mind. I realized as I reviewed my memory that I had been so intently focused on my moment of impact with the deer, and the brief shuddering horror of colliding with it, that I did not actually have ANY memory of which way it ran. It was a huge blank in my memory. I just assumed that it continued in its course after I hit it. But for all I could remember, it was possible that it could have turned around and gone back across the street. I went and searched over there too, without explaining why to the cop. We never did find it.

I wonder how many important details we miss when we are focused on the events that are emotionally arousing; whether there are methods to mitigate this effect; and whether it would be healthy and/or helpful to use them. I also wonder where I can get a flashlight that works as well as the one that cop had.


  1. I have always been fascinated at why some memories stick with us so long while others fade away. And I do agree the emotions of the moment have a lot to do with it but sometimes I recall things that just stick for no reason I can figure out. Like I have a memory from when I was little, not sure how old I was, maybe 4 or 5 but I remember with vivid detail riding on my big wheel down the street in front of our house, I am sure there was someone else there watching me but I don't remember who, all I can see in my mind is myself and that red and yellow big wheel trucking on down the street as fast my little legs could go. As for the flashlight, it was likely a Maglight, the nice ones can be used as a weapon they are so solid lol

    1. I think memories of novel experiences have a way of sticking too. Or ones where a lot of your senses are engaged.

  2. I remember saying to myself as a child, when I was 4 or 5, and nothing particularly important was happening "I will remember this moment forever." And I wondered if I would. And, somehow, I did.