Making Memories | How senses and emotions help us store and recall memories

There’s a family vacation photo on your desk—looking at it, you can recall details like the sun, the waves, the funny thing your son said just before the picture was taken.

Objects are powerful triggers that prompt us to recall past experiences. Researchers continue to explore how the senses influence how we form impressions and store and recall memories. Not only is the science fascinating, but it can also shape how brands communicate and win fans.

First, a quick primer on memory:

Memory works as a filter that helps us process the staggering number of experiences and stimuli we encounter every day—without memory, our brains would essentially be in a constant state of overflow, unable to function. Scientists understand that the hippocampus gathers new memories; long-term memories are stored in bits all over the brain. To recall a specific person or event, we subconsciously sort through all those bits to assemble the memory.

There are two primary types of memory: Explicit memories are those that you can deliberately recall and describe in words, like remembering your first date. Explicit memory is comprised of episodic memory (of people, experiences, objects, events) and semantic memory (facts we know about the world around us). Implicit memory is subconscious. The common example is that we know how to ride a bike from past learning and experience without thinking, “ I need to remember how to ride a bike.”

Research has shown that emotion influences how memories are encoded in our brains. In an influential study in the 1970s, Roger Brown and James Kulik coined the term “flashbulb memories” and proved that we’re more likely to remember events with significant emotional impact than mundane experiences. Flashbulb memory triggers “Where were you when” conversations: “Where were you on 9/11?”

More recently, Karim Nader of McGill University, found that flashbulb memories get reinforced—even changed—through these conversations. The more we talk about them, the more embedded these memories become. And hearing other people’s impressions of the events can alter the details we remember.

We also know that emotions and senses influence recall. French novelist Marcel Proust documented this effect of sensory input on memory in “Remembrance of Things Past,” when the sensation of eating a madeleine prompted the protagonist to recall pleasant childhood mornings with his beloved aunt.

Finally, we know that positive impressions or experiences can generate positive memories. Senses are key to creating those associations. In a recent study from Harvard University, researchers focused on how touch can provoke positive impressions—for example, subjects perceived that job candidates were more qualified when their resumes were presented on heavy clipboards.

“In an article for the journal Science, the study’s authors wrote: “First impressions are liable to be influenced by the tactile environment, and control over this environment may be especially important for negotiators, pollsters, job seekers and others interested in interpersonal communication.

The use of ‘tactile tactics’ may represent a new frontier in social influence and communication.”


If you’re looking for inspiration, examples, and more tips on how to increase the impact of your next printed project through careful paper selection, click here to learn more and take your work from good to great.

This article was written by Bryn Mooth and originally published in Issue 06 of the Mohawk Maker Quarterly. The Mohawk Maker Quarterly is a vehicle to support a community of like-minded makers. Content focuses on stories of small manufacturers, artisans, printers, designers, and artists who are making their way in the midst of the digital revolution. Learn more about the quarterly here and sign up to receive future printed issues.

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