Accuracy of Autobiographical Memory

Albeit scant in number, investigations of autobiographical memory accuracy in adults and children who have suffered child abuse point both to memory deficits as well as advantages. Evidence of a detrimental effect of trauma on autobiographical memory functioning is drawn from research with adult survivors of child sexual abuse. Edwards, Fivush, Anda, Felitti, and Nordenberg (2001) described autobiographical memory loss (i.e., gaps in memory) for childhood experiences in a nonclinical adult population, with sexually abused and physically abused participants twice as likely to self-report holes in their autobiographical memory compared to nonabused participants. Experiences of repeated abuse, abuse by a relative, and more severe abuse were especially powerful predictors of self-reported memory loss (see also Brown et al., 2007). Hunter and Andrews (2002) found autobiographical memory deficits for personal semantic childhood facts (e.g., names of friends and teachers, schools attended, home addresses) in participants with child sexual abuse histories compared to nonabused controls. However, further analysis revealed that this effect held only for participants who reported a period of having forgotten their abuse experiences (compared to those who reported continuous memory for abuse). No differences were found between abused and nonabused participants in autobiographical memory specificity for childhood events (see also Melchert, 1996; Melchert & Parker, 1997).

However, when child maltreatment victims are questioned about specific documented events, their memory is not necessarily more inaccurate or devoid of detail than that of nonmaltreated controls. In support of this assertion is a study by Eisen and colleagues (Eisen et al., 2002; Eisen et al., 2007) in which children's autobiographical memory for medical procedures (e.g., anogenital examination, venipuncture) was investigated. Most of the children, who ranged in age from 3 to 17 years, were child maltreatment victims, although a small comparison group of children with no known history of abuse was also included. Given this age range, it is no surprise that age differences in accuracy and completeness of report were prominent. In addition, type of maltreatment (and even maltreatment itself) was generally not associated with memory inaccuracy. There were a few exceptions, however. Children who had suffered neglect were somewhat less accurate than children who had suffered physical or sexual abuse. Other research has shown that neglected children are particularly likely to be from impoverished and non—intellectually stimulating environments (Gaudin, 1999), which could contribute to memory deficits. Of special interest for the present chapter, Eisen and colleagues found that child sexual abuse victims were more accurate compared to other child victims and to nonabused controls in their memory of the anogenital examination plus venipuncture, perhaps because the anogenital exam was particularly relevant to these children's abuse experiences. Surprisingly, PTSD diagnosis did not predict accuracy in this study.

Other evidence of a positive association between trauma and memory comes from a prospective memory study conducted by Greenhoot, McCloskey, and Glisky (2005). In this study, memory for abuse was examined in 12- to 18-year-olds who as children had either witnessed domestic violence against their mothers (by male partners) or suffered child physical abuse or punishment themselves, or both. They found that adolescents had better memory for previously disclosed personally experienced abuse versus previously disclosed abuse directed at their mothers. Furthermore, adolescents were less likely to completely forget or fail to report personally experienced abuse (20%) compared to witnessed abuse (34%). Among other interesting results, adolescents who as children had the most negative attitudes toward the abuser and blamed him more had the most accurate autobiographical memories for assaults, and had lower rates of complete forgetting (see also Chapter 4).

Research on autobiographical memory functioning in adult trauma victims, including victims of abuse, further suggests that traumatic experiences are well retained. Porter and Peace (2007) compared the consistency of traumatic memories with memories for highly positive emotional events over time. Results revealed that traumatic memories remained highly consistent years after their occurrence compared to positive memories, and that positive memories deteriorated over time in subjective ratings of vividness, overall quality, and sensory components, whereas memory for traumatic events did not. Although these authors did not assess autobiographical memory accuracy directly, their findings suggest that adults with trauma histories retain memories of their traumatic experiences better than memories of other highly positive emotional events. One explanation for this finding is that memories for traumatic events may be subject to more frequent memory rehearsal, which likely impacts the accuracy as well as the consistency of autobiographical memories. Indeed, Porter and Peace (2007) found that individuals reported thinking about their trauma experiences more frequently than the positive events tested.

Finally, Alexander, Quas, Goodman, Ghetti, Edelstein, Redlich, and colleagues (2005) conducted a prospective study of child sexual abuse victims. These researchers found that victims who, in adulthood and late adolescence, self-reported more PTSD symptoms had more accurate memories for the child sexual abuse when tested 12 to 21 years (M = 14.3 years) after the assaults. The same results held for the victims who reported child sexual abuse as their most traumatic experience even if they reported little in the way of PTSD symptomatology. Although we know of few studies on this topic, and thus firm conclusions are premature, these findings support the idea of particularly accurate retention of traumatic childhood events and further suggest that child maltreatment and PTSD do not necessarily lead to memory gaps or extreme error when a specific autobiographical event is at issue, especially if the event relates to their trauma experience.

In summary, research on accuracy of autobiographical memory in victims of childhood trauma suggests that although such victims may report gaps in their memory, in fact their autobiographical memories of the trauma itself and of trauma-related information is particularly accurate. Although further research is needed, the empirical work to date suggests that symptoms of PTSD predict better rather than worse autobiographical memory for the trauma itself.

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