Creating memories is a huge part of the human experience. We take pictures, record videos, and write down experiences. Why? We want to remember. Memories tend to fade over time. Even details from important events like getting married or having a child can be forgotten over the course of time. Again, that is why we hold onto what we can from pictures because it can refresh our memory when time is against us. All that being said, it is amazing what we can remember, especially considering people who have 60 years and more of memories. Even though we can forget little details, it is amazing speaking to someone who is 70 years old recall a memory from when they were 5 years old. How is that even possible? Episodic memory involves our ability to recall experiences of specific times and places throughout our lives. It is made possible by the medial temporal lobe and the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Simply stated, certain aspects of the brain work together to encode and store experiences in the brain. They also provide us the ability to go into our own “storage” and recall specific memories. Episodic memory works in conjunction with semantic memory which includes the general knowledge and facts we learn in the world. Together they make up our declarative memory which is what helps create the context for a complete picture.
The brain is pretty incredible in terms of what it can do. While we do what we can to help us remember, the brain does all of this unconsciously and automatically. If the brain does this on its own, what role does episodic memory play in our lives?
It helps us build relationships. Creating memories is an experience that is an important part in building relationships. Imagine the early stages of a new relationship. The moments a couple shares together begins to create the foundation to their relationship. They share experiences like their first date, their first kiss, and the first time the say, “I love you.” These episodic memories are what we remember and become moments that measure and define our relationship with another person.
It helps us maintain relationships. Memories also help us maintain relationships. Episodic memories create shared experiences that provide us with history. The history we share with others generates a deep connection difficult to break. Sharing experiences develops into memories and those memories turn into history. When we share a long history with someone, it helps maintain a relationship even if we do not see that person every day.
It makes experiences meaningful. Part of what happens with episodic memory is that emotions are ascribed to the experience. Memories stay with a person longer when specific emotions are tied to the memory. For example, people typically can recall moments from their wedding or remember losing a loved one. Strong emotions connected to the memory contribute to our ability to recall memories later on even if it has been years or decades since the event occurred. When emotion is tied to our memories, it can make them more meaningful and memorable.
It allows us to learn through remembering. As with most experiences, we can often learn a lot from them. Episodic memory is an important part of creating a picture of the past. For example , if we had a terrible experience traveling on a specific airline, the experience might affect how we go about traveling moving forward. The past can teach us valuable lessons and influence decision-making moving forward.
Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant in sports psychology. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.