There are two types of memory, the cognitive and the emotional, and the latter is more enduring. Maya Angelou characterized the distinction between these two types of memory most eloquently and succinctly when she said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” She was ahead of her time, because neurocognitive research has objectified with science what Ms. Angelou captured so elegantly in her prose. Emotional events are processed in the sensory systems and then transmitted to the medial-temporal lobe and the amygdale for the formation of an emotional memory. When the memory is cued and retrieved from the amygdale, it triggers an emotional response. Emotional experiences leave strong traces in the brain. Memories about emotional situations are stored in both the conscious and unconscious memory, which is part of the reason emotional memories are so enduring.1 Studies of patients with severe anterograde amnesia following circumscribed bilateral hippocampal brain damage showed enduring memories of emotion despite the absence of conscious memories.2 This has a demonstrably practical application in patients with dementia, who we now know have feelings of happiness and sadness long after they have forgotten what caused the emotion.3
The distinction is important because patients judge the quality of their medical care based on emotions. The patient satisfaction disconnect arises from the fact that physicians live in their cognitive memory, while patients live in their emotional memory. Being cognitive and objective is a critical skill a physician must bring to the bedside every day; the reason we don’t allow physicians to treat family members is that their ability to remain objective will be impaired. I realized that my emotion, my passion, and my empathy for the dying would impair my judgment when I started medical school, and I launched myself on a conscious and systematic discipline to keep those feelings out of my mind during patient care. The effort worked and, for the most part, I have been able to remain objective and unemotional as I care for my patients. Recently, however, I realized that my focus on objectivity negatively impacts patient experience. As a result, I have expanded my view: While I must stay objective and detached with my thinking, I must be emotionally engaged to provide a great patient experience.
I can remain objective and detached in my clinical judgment as I engage and connect emotionally during my patient encounters. This delicate balancing act has taken years of trial and error, however. I recently cared for a woman in her 60s who had fallen and broke her hip. Everyone was pleased that a top orthopedic surgeon was on call and able to give her the first-rate care she needed to begin walking again. The surgery went smoothly, and she was transferred to the medical/surgical ward, where things took a turn for the worse. She had a lot of anxiety in addition to her osteoporosis. Objectively, she was doing great, and we had a big success on our hands; however, she remained anxious, and she peppered the surgeon with fears that, while unfounded, were very real in her mind. The surgeon brushed them off, saying that her fears were not real and that he didn’t need to address them; his response made her emotional state spiral out of control. Her nurse notified me of the situation, and I came to her bedside. She was very agitated. I sat down at a low level and just started listening. She got all of her anxieties out in words. I held her hand, looked her in the eye, and assured her that I would be there for her and that things were going to be alright. Subsequently, she wrote letters of gratitude and proclaimed to any medical staff who would listen what a talented and great doctor I was. I did not have the skill to fix her broken hip; if it had been left to me alone, she would still be bed-bound. But I did have the human skills to connect with her and fix her agitated mind. If we remember the enduring power of the emotional memory, we can create great patient experiences.