Exercises to Reconnect with Your Past and Enhance Emotional Memory

Techniques used to harness past memories as a tool for emotional expression

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

A strong emotional memory leads to deeper self-awareness and richer connections with others. Dr. Restak recommends some fun exercises to improve your emotional memory.

Man looking in the mirror
While thinking about memories of sad, neutral, and happy events, are facial expressions typically show the emotions. Photo By Grusho Anna / Shutterstock

Enhancing Emotional Sensitivity

Each sense memory exercise is based on the principle that the more vivid the sense memory is, the greater the chances of establishing emotional memory. You may be able to evoke, explore, and even revisit your emotions, but approach these exercises in the spirit of play—don’t take yourself too seriously, and you will have a greater chance of making the exercises work. 

The first exercise comes courtesy of Dr. Restak’s daughter Jennifer, an actress and a teacher on how to enhance emotional sensitivity. This exercise involves a partner. 

The two of you sit together on the floor, two or three feet apart, knees crossed, and looking at each other. You ask the other person to close their eyes and think of an emotion that is very sad. You study their face as they’re thinking about this. 

Then have them think of something neutral, followed by something happy. Observe them carefully—you’ve previously instructed them not to make any facial movements, just think these thoughts. 

Next, you close your eyes, thinking sad, neutral, and happy thoughts. Then you open your eyes and repeat the process with the person looking at you. 

Afterwards, you compare notes about what you were thinking when you were sad or happy. Was there anything you noticed in their face that clued you in to their emotions? 

It’s important not to inhibit facial expression but to remain vulnerable. Besides giving us an opportunity to know what someone else is thinking, this exercise teaches us how to express and read emotions through the face.

Emotional Memory and Smell

The second emotional memory exercise involves smell and olfaction, which provides the surest sense for enhancing emotional memory. Smell and taste are evocative because of the direct connection of the olfactory nerve going straight into the limbic system. 

Invite some friends to your apartment or home. Each one of them brings something that has a distinctive smell such as fresh cookies, sandalwood, mowed grass, and crayons. 

Line these things up, and each one of them participates in smelling it separately and seeing what that brings forth in terms of memory. What does mowed grass make you think of? Perhaps you recall summers in upper New York state where you went as a child.

Crayons—does that make you think of school when you were tiny? Each person describes the memories that each scent evoked. 

The task is to come up with a specific emotionally charged incident associated with a scent. Use that memory to recreate and express the feelings aroused at that time. 

Time Travel Exercise

Finally, Dr. Restak recommends an experiential exercise based on theater that has the potential to enhance emotional memory. If you draw the muscles on your face back tightly, you can actually reduce your age by about 10 years. 

Do this exercise in a dimly lit room, quietly, by yourself. As you stare into a mirror, your brain will eventually be able to flip back and forth between the way you looked 10 years ago and the way you look now. 

Thus, you can slowly begin to re-experience your emotional responses. There’s going to be a playful part. You just need a quiet, dimly lit room and an openness to your emotional responses. 

The aim is to experience the body image of 10 years ago, let your mind wander, and free associate. As you enter into the persona of the person in the mirror, you’ll encounter random thoughts and images, followed by the emotions. You can only do this exercise occasionally; the brain eventually catches on, and in the absence of novelty and surprise, the recovered memories are experienced less vividly. 

You can do the same thing on a computer through the computerized photographic technique of morphing. You take two photos—one of you from 10 years ago and one of you now—and laser scan them, and by shifting pixels from one image to another, you can gradually create a transformation. 

Within seconds and a few keystrokes, you can detract decades from your current photographic likeness. You are controlling the morphing process and imaginatively re-experiencing yourself.

All of these exercises stimulate your senses and activate your imagination. In doing so, you enhance your emotional memory.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.