Less specific memories after a trauma?
Maybe your strongest memory from childhood is an angry outburst from your mom or dad. Or perhaps your clearest recollection is your first kiss?
We remember emotional impressions better than neutral ones, but a trauma can affect what we recall.
This was confirmed by Ines Blix in her doctoral study when she investigated the memories of women who had been sexually assaulted as adults – some had been viciously attacked and raped by strangers, others had been raped by an acquaintance.
Her study showed that the traumatized women remembered their past less specifically than women who had not experienced a trauma.
A capacity problem in the brain
For three years Blix, as a researcher at the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo, analysed various processes relating to forgetting, self-biographical memory and future-oriented thinking among traumatized women and a control group.
In one of the studies the women were asked to associate a word with something they visualized from their past.
When Blix asked them to name a special memory they associate with the word ‘happy’, several of the women who’d been traumatized would say something general like: ‘I was happy every time I visited my grandparents.’
Whereas women in the control group were more specific, like: ‘I was overjoyed when I got an A on a math test'.
Their hazier memories of occurrences stretching back to childhood seem to support an old hypothesis, thinks Dagfinn Winje, who heads a University of Bergen group researching trauma.
“It’s almost as if there was a capacity problem in the brain caused by the trauma,” he says.
“Many who seek treatment have reduced memories of things that happened prior to the traumatic experience,” he adds.
Controversy about memories of own traumas
Little research has been conducted on the specific memory mechanisms relating to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to Blix, and Winje agrees.
Blix says a controversy has been running in this field of research about the existence of special memory mechanisms in persons who have been exposed to trauma. Her research faces that issue.
“We don’t find much confirmation for special memory mechanisms at work in traumatized persons,” asserts Ines Blix.
Her findings support that traumas are channelled into the normal memory processes like other memories.
Feelings are what count
One discovery in Blix's study was that emotional material is generally more difficult to forget, regardless of whether or not one has been exposed to a trauma.
To find out what kinds of memories are hardest to forget, Blix utilised a method that investigates the automatic forgetting of words under particular circumstances.
Emotionally charged words were most resistant to this sort of automatic consignment to the abyss − they would cling to the memories of all the women, including those who had experienced traumas, according to Blix.
The women who had been sexually molested did not remember trauma-related words better than other emotionally charged words, and they recalled them as readily as the non-traumatized women recalled the emotionally charged words.
You remember emotional material − but not just because you are traumatized, according to Blix.
“It’s feasible that the content of our memory could be the key to what kind of reactions we have, and it’s not really a question of particular cognitive mechanisms for remembering traumatic situations,” says Blix.
“The fact that this type of automatic forgetting doesn’t work on emotional material might have more negative consequences for participants exposed to trauma,” she says.
Generalised past – generalised future?
A common notion in cognitive psychology is that memory and thoughts about the future are guided by the same mental system.
Another idea under consideration links a reduction in specific memories to depression, and postulates that such despair also leads to more generalised and less specific thoughts about the future, according to Blix.
But even though she found traumatized women having less specific memories from the past than women in the other group, nothing indicated that their projections regarding the future were any hazier.
Among other things, Blix asked the women the following: “Can you picture a specific episode in the future when I say the word ‘party’?”
A generic term for all sorts of physical and mental injuries (psychological traumas) and afflictions with external causes.
A person is diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder if after experiencing a traumatic incident, a person has a certain number of symptoms of various categories, including a change in their thinking about the future, and the condition also impacts their daily life.
(Source: Store norske leksikon/Dagfinn Winje)
“We discovered that trauma symptoms among the women were linked to their capabilities of recalling specifically from the past, but not to their skills in visualizing future events,” she says.
“As regards how far ahead or how far back they could relate to, there was no difference between the control group and the traumatized group. We found no indication of the so-called sense of a foreshortened future among those with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder,” says Blix.
The phenomenon ‘foreshortened future’ is one of several factors included in diagnostic criteria for PTSD.
Some persons who have experienced a trauma appear to have a rather different approach to the future than un-traumatized persons.
Dagfinn Winje has witnessed this at close quarters. He has researched survivors and their families as well as families of the casualties after a bus wreck in 1988, in which 12 children from the small Swedish town of Kista and four adults died.
“Many had stopped making plans, short-term and long-term, especially those who had lost a child. This is an example of the experience of foreshortened future,” he explains.
He thinks some of the young people who were on the island Utøya on 22 July 2011, when a Norwegian terrorist gunned down 69 people at a Labour Party youth camp, might experience this too.
“These are very resourceful youth who have wanted to influence their future and ours. Still, we can’t rule out that many of them, at least for a time, have lost their faith in the future,” he says.
Different traumas − different symptoms?
Although many with PSTD can experience a foreshortened future, not all do. Winje thinks this could depend on what kind of traumatic experience they’ve had.
He deems it quite conceivable that the symptoms of someone who had been violently raped would differ from those of persons who have lost a child or another loved one.
Three major groups of symptoms that can emerge as a result of a rape attack are nightmares and flashbacks, avoidance behaviour and hyper-vigilance and body tension.
Winje is not particularly surprised that a group of persons who have experienced such traumas in Blix’s study do not appear to have a foreshortened future disturbance. But he thinks there could be broad individual variations.
“If you are 30 years old, consider yourself beautiful, healthy and successful, and then you are raped and you suffer from a long-term reaction, you are probably going to have problems summoning the same thoughts about the future you had before,” he says.
Self reporting vs clinical evaluations
Ines Blix thinks we now need more research about future-oriented thinking after traumas, including persons who have experienced deeply disturbing and violent incidents, to spot those who will have problems facing the future and making plans.
“In our study we measured thinking about the future in one way. New studies should look at several aspects of future oriented thinking among people exposed to trauma,” she says.
One weakness mentioned in scientific literature is that the women reported the trauma symptoms themselves through the use of a measuring tool – they were not clinically evaluated.
Memory is essential to identity
Dagfinn Winje agrees that further examinations of memory processes linked to PTSD would be beneficial.
He thinks clinical psychology has some insufficiently studied areas linked to memory and forgetting, and that research on this is useful because it can affect theories and treatment methods.
Memory and images from our past might be more important for designating who we are than many realise, according to Winje.
“More knowledge can make treatment providers like me more capable of impacting people’s memories and their issues with forgetting. This could be easier than attempting to change their personalities,” says Winje.
Blix, I. (2011) Remembering and forgetting after trauma: Studies of cognition with victims of sexual assault. Department of Psychology, University of Oslo.
Translated by: Glenn Ostling
- Blix I and Brennen T (2011) Intentional forgetting of emotional words after trauma: a study with victims of sexual assault. Front. Psychology 2:235