The Relationships Between Emotions, Memory, Attention, and Decision-Making

It is a common idea that emotions and rationality are not compatible; in fact, it is often stated that emotions hinder and prevent rational thought. However, as pointed out by LeBlanc, McConnell, and Monteiro (2014), this perspective is not only incorrect; it is also detrimental because it devalues emotions. Recent studies indicate that emotions and various cognitive processes have complex relationships, and, among other things, this principle applies to memory, attention, and decision-making (LeBlanc et al., 2014; Schupp, Kirmse, Schmälzle, Flaisch, & Renner, 2016). The present paper will review these relationships along with some specific examples and demonstrate that the topic is important and has practical implications.

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From the perspective of neuroscience, emotions are “physiological or neuronal responses” which “inform the organism about desired or undesired situations” by representing specific “changes in a person’s visceral state” (LeBlanc et al., 2014, p. 267). Regarding the parts of the brain that are responsible for emotions, it was initially assumed that the limbic system (older part of the brain) was of importance, but recent research indicates that emotional information is processed both by the limbic system and newer structures (Knott, Howe, Toffalini, Shah, & Humphreys, 2018; LeBlanc et al., 2014, p. 268). In other words, a large number of brain areas are involved in emotions processing, and these areas are also shown to be responsible for other cognitive functions, including memory, attention, and decision-making. On the other hand, the cognitive perspective on emotions is also noteworthy; according to it, they can be defined as the “subjective experience of feelings or moods,” which is one of the cognitive functions (LeBlanc et al., 2014, p. 267). Thus, emotions are connected to memory, attention, and decision-making neurobiological and cognitively.

Furthermore, recent studies evidence direct interactions between the mentioned cognitive functions. People tend to pay increased attention to the types of information that are emotionally important, for instance, facial expressions (LeBlanc et al., 2014). Emotionally charged events are memorized easier and in greater detail; the association with a particular emotion makes it simpler for a person to recall it due to strong encoding (Gandolphe & Haj, 2017; Knott et al., 2018; LeBlanc et al., 2014). Similarly, decision-making can be affected by emotions, for example, when the choice of different cognitive strategies is concerned (LeBlanc et al., 2014). It should also be pointed out that the four different functions can have more complex relationships (Knott et al., 2018; LeBlanc et al., 2014). For instance, an emotion can result in enhanced attention to an event while providing the information that will affect the judgment about it. At the same time, the same emotion can also be associated with a memory of a similarly emotionally colored event, which will have an impact on the final decision-making.

In summary, one’s emotions affect the choice of stimuli that one pays attention to, the things that one remembers, and the decisions that one makes. According to LeBlanc et al. (2014), more research on the topic is needed, but several phenomena are already sufficiently studied to illustrate these principles. A relevant example is recovered memories. Chiu (2018) defines recovered memory as “an autobiographical event which had been unknown until a memory of the event was discovered” (p. 135). It is not clear if recovered memories are correct, but Chiu (2018) states that their correctness can be established if they are analyzed for various types of information, including emotional information. In particular, a greater intensity of feelings is evidenced to be associated with actually recovered memories. Chiu (2018) notes that the topic needs more research, but this tendency, which is supported by current research, can be used to indicate that there is a link between emotions and memories.

In connection to recovered memories, false ones, which refer to the recollection of things that one has not experienced, should also be noted. Current research allows suggesting that strong emotions tend to strengthen false memories. Furthermore, in the case of negative emotions, false memories are also evidenced to be processed automatically, which means that they require less attentional resources than the memories associated with good or neutral emotions (Knott et al., 2018). Additionally, Bookbinder and Brainerd (2016) show that the emotional content of false memories and the emotional state of the person experiencing them can affect the process in different ways. In particular, different versions of emotional states can either promote or suppress false memories. Therefore, false memories also prove the existence of relationships between emotions and memory.

Another interesting case is flashbulb memories, which can be defined as “vivid autobiographical memories of the circumstances where an individual first learns about an emotionally significant public event” (Gandolphe & Haj, 2017, p. 199). They directly illustrate the fact that intense emotions enhance a person’s memory because this kind of memories tends to be particularly vivid (LeBlanc et al., 2014). Gandolphe and Haj (2017) show that flashbulb memories are particularly likely to be associated with negative emotions, but the authors were studying the memories related to a terrorist attack, which means that their conclusions do not rule out the possibility of other emotions having similar effects. In any case, flashbulb memories are a very vivid example of the impact that emotions can have on memories.

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Other cognitive functions should also be mentioned. With respect to decision-making, emotions are believed to trigger quick “changes in cognitive strategies” while also providing the information necessary for judgments about pleasant or unpleasant events (LeBlanc et al., 2014, p. 269). A common example is the influence of fear and anxiety on making the decisions related to distancing oneself from the phenomenon that prompts the mentioned feelings (Shahrabani, Rosenboim, Shavit, Benzion, & Arbiv, 2018). Furthermore, selective attention can be influenced by emotions as well; in particular, they tend to guide the processes which are related to paying attention to specific stimuli (Schupp et al., 2016). For instance, negative information typically attracts greater attention, especially when a person experiences anxiety (LeBlanc et al., 2014). However, there are also negative relationships between emotions and attention. For example, Sadeh et al. (2011) demonstrate that in people with psychopathy who are high in impulsive antisociality, emotional sensitivity is also very high, which contributes to worsened cognitive control, especially attentional one. Thus, the effects of emotions on attention are well-evidenced, but their specifics can vary.

It should be pointed out that the impact of emotions on cognitive processes can be detrimental, but it can also be beneficial. The above-presented cases illustrate this tendency. Similarly, LeBlanc et al. (2014) use the example of stress which is an emotion that can have both positive and negative effects on cognitive functions. The authors note that stressed people tend to switch to resource-saving strategies, which can be essential, for example, when healthcare professionals attempt to save a person’s life. Also, LeBlanc et al. (2014) state that stress is evidenced to enhance learning. On the other hand, they note that the opposite effects are also possible; for instance, a stressful event can hinder the process of recalling information, affecting memory in a negative way. Positive emotions, however, tend to have beneficial effects; for instance, LeBlanc et al. (2014) note that decision-making is among the functions that can be augmented this way (p. 274). Thus, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that emotions do not have to disrupt cognitive processes.

All the presented information can have practical applications. For example, the understanding of the impact of emotions on memory and attention is particularly important for education. Additionally, LeBlanc et al. (2014) note that professional activities, including healthcare practice, can also make use of the mentioned patterns, especially if the latter are more extensively researched. The authors highlight the fact that many human activities are inherently associated with intense emotions, including, for instance, stress. Therefore, the understanding of the mentioned mechanisms can help individuals, educators, and leaders to pay sufficient attention to emotions and employ the knowledge for the benefit of their education and practice.

To summarize, the relationships between emotions, memory, attention, and decision-making are evidenced rather extensively. Some of the most vivid examples include recovered, false, and flashbulb memories, as well as selective attention, which demonstrate that emotions can have negative and positive effects. The connections between the four phenomena may be the result of the fact that emotions are associated with multiple areas of the brain that are also connected to the other three functions. However, more research on the topic is needed to understand the related mechanisms and effectively employ them in education and professional practice.

References

Bookbinder, S., & Brainerd, C. (2016). Emotion and false memory: The context–content paradox. Psychological Bulletin, 142(12), 1315-1351. Web.

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Chiu, C. (2018). Phenomenological characteristics of recovered memory in nonclinical individuals. Psychiatry Research, 259, 135-141. Web.

Gandolphe, M., & Haj, M. (2017). Flashbulb memories of the Paris attacks. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 58(3), 199-204. Web.

Knott, L., Howe, M., Toffalini, E., Shah, D., & Humphreys, L. (2018). The role of attention in immediate emotional false memory enhancement. Emotion, 1-15. Web.

LeBlanc, V., McConnell, M., & Monteiro, S. (2014). Predictable chaos: A review of the effects of emotions on attention, memory and decision making. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 20(1), 265-282. Web.

Sadeh, N., Spielberg, J. M., Heller, W., Herrington, J. D., Engels, A. S., Warren, S. L.,… Miller, G. A. (2011). Emotion disrupts neural activity during selective attention in psychopathy. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(3), 235-246. Web.

Schupp, H., Kirmse, U., Schmälzle, R., Flaisch, T., & Renner, B. (2016). Newly-formed emotional memories guide selective attention processes: Evidence from event-related potentials. Scientific Reports, 6(1), 1-9. Web.

Shahrabani, S., Rosenboim, M., Shavit, T., Benzion, U., & Arbiv, M. (2018). “Should I stay or should I go?” Risk perceptions, emotions, and the decision to stay in an attacked area. International Journal of Stress Management, 1-12. Web.

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