WSSU professor explores memory and emotion in new book
Why is it that so many people are afraid of a shark biting them but don’t think twice about driving their car? It is one of the many biases found in the human mind when it comes to perception and memory. Dr. Richard Walker, a psychology professor at Winston- Salem State University attempts to answer this question and many others in his new book, Pollyanna’s Revenge.
The book explores the processes by which people mentally record events and the amount of time it takes for the emotions associated with each event to fade.
“Everyone knows that memories fade with time,” Walker said. “That’s no surprise. But we stumbled on this little effect where we find that the emotions also show a very similar kind of fading.”
The focus of Walker’s research for the last 20 years has been the emotional content of autobiographical memory.
“This piqued my interest back in ‘95 when I found this, and we thought to ourselves, hey this is adaptive,” he said. “This is good. I mean people remember the event but they emotional sting goes away.”
To illustrate the ways positive memories are stored, the book’s first chapter depicts Mt. Airy and the way it houses the memories of so many who grew up with The Andy Griffith Show and its fictional town of Mayberry.
Walker collaborated with two professors at other universities in writing the book. He said Pollyanna’s Revenge is not intended to be a self-help book, but rather an informative tool for anyone curious about psychology.
“This is for the general reader who wants to understand how memory and emotion works,” he said. “And I think one can find some comfort in it. Certainly we try to craft the chapters to include narratives that make some of the data more accessible.”
In the book, Walker refers to a number of tragic events that typically have strong negative emotions with them, like the attacks of September 11, 2001 and a shooting at Northern Illinois University in February 2008.
Five people in an oceanography class died in the event, and 17 were injured including instructor Joseph Peterson, whom Walker interviewed.
“He’ll (Peterson) never forget that event,” Walker said. “And he’ll never feel good about that event, but the emotions that he carries around from that event have largely dissipated. Which means that he knows that the event was negative, but when he recalls the event and thinks about the event now by and large the emotions have faded.”
Peterson ended up finishing out his teaching that semester, and the students decided to stay in the course.
“I think what we’re capturing here is not just a memory phenomenon, but a larger phenomenon of resilience,” Walker said. “People are able to withstand and survive quite a bit.”
Walker added that in addition to natural human perception, social forces also play a role in triggering emotions by reemphasizing positive memories and punishing the mind for negative memories. He uses the example of friends comforting a guy whose girlfriend has just broken up with him and is clearly distraught, but begins to feel better as a result of the companionship.
Walker said he thinks negative emotions tend to be dramatized. He cited shows like Breaking Bad and Dexter, which support the narrative that embracing negative emotions makes people better by featuring characters that viewers love to hate.
“I think in the larger society we have become so enamored with negativity, where negativity is the solution for everything,” he said.
Walker added that this idea can also be seen in the fear surrounding global climate change.
“I think we have painted such a scary scenario that people don’t even want to consider it,” he said. “They don’t even want to acknowledge the reality of it so they retreat. They run from it.”
Walker and his colleagues have replicated studies of emotions in places around the world. Out of 15,000 events total, he said roughly 15 to 25 percent of people do not exhibit the effect of lessening emotions, which he thinks represent those suffering from anxiety and depression.
He emphasized that resilience is a quality that can be found across a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Part of the human condition is to be able to adapt and be able to show grit and resilience in the face of adversity,” he said.
Walker explained that this is the reason that citizens of a country as economically depressed as Haiti can still demonstrate capacity to process and deal with events.
“That does not mean that life is good for them,” he said. “What it means is that they have the capacity to cope and to overcome, and what they really need is a chance.”
Part of Walker’s research process involved visiting different parts of his hometown High Point and listening to different types of people tell their stories.
“I think in academia we have a tendency to talk about people and talk about findings, but we never get out and actually talk to people,” he said. “What I found in talking with them, they are struggling but in many cases they have this sense about them where they really are trying to bring things back together.”
Pollyanna’s Revenge is now on Amazon for $25 as well as Barnes & Noble and kendallhunt.com. Walker said if the book does well in its first year he might try to get it published in a larger market. !