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Writing, Emotions and Memory
By Esther M. Sternberg, M.D.

Special to LitSite Alaska

Writing is like painting -- with each you have to dredge your memory. When you paint, you reach mostly into the back part of the brain -- the area scientists call the visual cortex -- where images are made. And when you visualize that image, you also tap into the parietal lobe where images are stored (1, 2). You close your eyes to see the twinkling city lights below as you walked home along Mount Royal's slope in Montreal one winter long ago. With either a paintbrush or a pen you can try to re-create those images out of memory -- try to put them down on paper as you see them now and saw them then.

First, the scene is viewed from a wide angle -- you draw the outline. Then you begin to focus in, in memory and on canvas, to fill in the details. You are looking around your spatial memory center -- your hippocampus. Turning your eye to each new corner of the scene, nerve cells fire up and then quiet down in successive waves, as shadows of the image pass across your mind's eye.

Esther M. Sternberg, M.D.

The snow on the sidewalk was piled high against the fence. The steam, rising at an angle from the city skyscrapers far below, is in that peculiar suspended animation that happens on clear cold nights. Out of the corner of your eye you thought you saw the faint glimmer of the Northern Lights -- or was it just the headlights of a passing truck? You can put all these elements of the scene on canvas.

But when you paint, you can't put down the cold. You can't put in the crunch and squeak of snow under your boots as you take each step. You can't put in the smell of burning wood from fireplaces behind cozy yellow-lit windows in the homes across the street. You can't draw the sting in your nostrils as you try to breathe in the wintry air, or the pinch on the bridge of your nose as your eyeglass rim freezes to it. You may remember all these elements of the scene, but with painting you can only try to convey them with shape and color. With words you can paint it all.

As you remember each bit of the scene, you dip into all those parts of your brain that store memories from each different sense: auditory memories in the temporal lobe and memories of your sense of touch, like images, in the parietal lobe. These are parts of your brain where the signals from each sense were first received, and where your perception of them was first formed. With words you can then communicate exactly what you remember through all your senses.

But you can also go one step farther. You can let each piece of memory link you to another memory through each sense. The cold stinging snow reminds you of another day -- not night -- when you sat on a chairlift gliding in that eerie silence above the frozen trees, heavy under the weight of new-fallen snow. The air is not clear here, but hung with crystals that turn the sun into a halo straight ahead. And as you dredge your memory you realize that it is not really silent, but there is a steady hum and whir of the lift cables as you pass each lift column marching up the slope. The trees get smaller and smaller as you progress up the mountainside, and at the very top they cling to the summit, gnarled and dwarfed, against the biting wind. With words you can paint a moving picture over time and space, not just one, but hundreds and thousands -- as many frames as you like, to fill the page.

On the chairlift, and on that street at night, your fingers inside gloved hands were cold. So cold, they were almost numb. That reminds you of another time, on a chilly spring morning not so long ago, when you sat on your deck, computer on your lap, steaming coffee cup by your side. You look up from the screen and see the sun glinting on the tiny green leaves in the bush at the back of the garden. You want to write more. Writing calms your worried soul. But you have to stop to wrap your fingers around the coffee cup because it is just a bit too cold to write bare-hand outside. Your fingers are getting numb and the warm cup brings them back to life. You plunge back into the words on screen and the memory in your head.

Now it is a sunny morning in June when you are a child. You are sitting on the deck -- another deck, a long-ago deck in Montreal, looking at the bushes in the back of your mother's garden. It is not cold, but it is quiet. Quiet except for a dog barking and the occasional thud of a tennis ball on the court across the street. You smell your father's coffee as he lifts the big mug to his lips, and looks up from his book to smile at you. You breathe in deeply and smell the lilacs in full purple bloom against the deck. And your father says: "Listen. Listen to the sounds of peace."

And now, so many, many years later, long after he has gone, when you go back to the place in your memory of that June morning, whether you get there through seeing sun glinting on leaves, or scent of lilacs, or tennis balls on clay, you feel a sense of peace. No matter how you felt before you got to that place in memory, whether anxious, sad or stressed, the warmth returns.

Memories connect you not only to past images and past senses, but also to past emotions. That is because whenever a memory is stored, bits of it get connected through nerve pathways to those centers in your brain that add an emotional charge -- the amygdala for fear and anxiety, the nucleus accumbens for pleasure. Nerve cells in each emotional center in the brain make and release different nerve chemicals that help cement the memory: dopamine for pleasure and addiction, adrenalin-like norepinephrine for fear. The brain's stress center, the hypothalamus makes the stress hormone CRH, corticotropin releasing hormone. Through hard-wiring and these nerve chemicals, memories formed at the same time that a strong emotion is experienced are seared indelibly into the brain.

Esther M. Sternberg, M.D.

Research has shown that writing about such emotionally charged memories, even for a few minutes a day, can be therapeutic. Dr. James Pennebaker first showed in 1986 that college students who wrote about an emotional experience in their lives had fewer doctor visits and less illness throughout the following year (3). More recently this method has been shown to be effective in reducing the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis when used together with standard medical therapy (4 , 5).

Scientists don't know exactly how this works, but we do know that the hormones and nerve chemicals released from the brain and adrenal glands when we are stressed change the way immune cells function (6). Writing about a stressful event may interrupt the flow of stress hormones that harm the immune system and lead to disease.

There are many ways to get back to emotional memories, mostly through meandering paths, like meditation, psychotherapy or dreams. But writing can get you there too. Once you remember -- inhale deeply, feel the cold, close your eyes and find yourself back again next to your father, mother, lover, child -- and try hard to put the feelings and the scene precisely into words, you too can find your place of peace.


  1. Principles of Neural Science, 4/e. E. Kandel, J. Schwartz, T. Jessell. 2000 (The McGraw -Hill Companies, Inc.).
  2. Desimone R. The physiology of memory: recordings of things past. Science. 1992 Oct 9; 258(5080): 245-6
  3. Pennebaker JW, Seagal JD. Forming a story: The health benefits of narrative. J Clin Psychol. 1999; 55(10): 1243-1254.
  4. Smyth JM, Stone AA, Hurewitz A, Kaell A. Effects of writing about stressful experiences on symptom reduction in patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis: a randomized trial. JAMA. 1999; 281:1304-1309.
  5. Spiegel D. Healing Words: Emotional expression and disease outcome. JAMA. 1999; 281: 1328-1329.
  6. The Balance Within. The Science Connecting Health and Emotions. E.M. Sternberg. 2000 (W.H. Freeman & Co.).
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About the Author: Esther M. Sternberg, M.D. is an internationally noted expert on emotions, health, and disease. She is the author of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions (published in 2000 by W. H. Freeman and Company) and more than 100 scientific papers, reviews, and book chapters on the subject of brain-immune connections, including articles in Scientific American and Nature Medicine. Dr. Sternberg is Director of the Integrative Neural Immune Program and Chief, Section on Neuroendocrine Immunology and Behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health and National Institutes of Health. "Writing, Emotions and Memory" was written in a personal capacity for LitSite Alaska and does not represent the opinions of the NIH, DHHS, or the federal government. For more information about Dr. Sternberg visit her Web Site:

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