Autobiographical and Overgeneral Memory in Adolescents and Adults

The theories reviewed so far focus mainly on the initial emergence or early stages of autobiographical memory in childhood. In the present chapter, we are primarily concerned with adolescents' and adults' autobiographical memory for childhood events, and thus theories of autobiographical memories in adolescents and adults are also relevant. Rubin (2006) has proposed the basic systems model. Taking this approach, Rubin contends that several basic systems are involved in autobiographical memory: memory and imagery systems (e.g., explicit memory, search and retrieval processes, spatial imagery), language and narrative systems, sensory systems (e.g., vision, audition, olfaction), emotion and pain systems, and vestibular/motor systems. In this model, each system is a separate network, and these networks interact to produce autobiographical memory (Rubin, 2006). Of interest for the present chapter, according to Rubin, emotions modulate memory encoding and recall. For individuals who have suffered maltreatment, one can imagine that systems such as the emotion/pain, language/narrative, and memory/imagery systems might be particularly affected. Although Rubin's view holds that the typical life script contains many positive events from adolescence and early adulthood (Berntsen & Rubin, 2002; Rubin & Berntsen, 2003), to our knowledge, no one has examined if that is so for adults with child maltreatment histories.

Conway and Pleydell-Pearce (2000) have also formulated a model of adult autobiographical memory, with such memory viewed as part of a larger, self-memory system. Within their model, three levels of hierarchically embedded representations exist: lifetime periods (e.g., "when I was a teenager"), which are at the most superordinate level; general event descriptions of repeated or one-time events (e.g., "walking to high school," "my interview with the social worker"), which are embedded in lifetime periods; and event-specific knowledge (e.g., "walking into the big building with a woman with red hair"), which contains more concrete sensory-perceptual information about unique events. Retrieval of a specific autobiographical memory occurs with coordinated activity at all three levels. However, information only enters autobiographical memory if the life experience is relevant to the individual's active goals. Within this model, if the traumatic event is relevant to ongoing goals but so strongly challenges self-coherence as to be unacceptable to the psychological self, lack of integration into autobiographical memory stores is possible. Moreover, overgeneral memory may be accounted for in the Conway and Pleydell-Pearce model as a truncated retrieval search ("dysfacilitation" of the retrieval process) that results from functional avoidance, whereas intrusive memories associated with PTSD are accounted for by a "direct retrieval" process that is involuntary.

In a further attempt to explain the phenomenon of overgeneral autobiographical memory in adults, Williams et al. (2007) recently proposed an extension of the Conway and Pleydell-Pearce model. This extension is termed the CaR-FA-X model (CaR stands for "capture and rumination," FA stands for "functional avoidance," and X stands for "impaired executive control"). Like Conway and Pleydell-Pearce, Williams and colleagues embrace the concept of functional avoidance of distressing memories, but these researchers add two additional processes based on research findings suggesting multiple possible contributions to overgeneral memory. In this model, capture and rumination, in addition to functional avoidance, can contribute to overgeneral memory. "Capture" refers to conceptual, abstract information about the self interfering with access to specific episodic memories, whereas "rumination" refers to repetitive thinking about one's symptoms and about the possible causes and consequences of these symptoms (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). Research suggests that overgeneral memory in depressed patients is less specific following rumination instructions (e.g., "Think about why you feel the way you do") than distraction instructions ("Think about the face of the Mona Lisa"; Watkins & Teasdale, 2001; Watkins, Teasdale, & Williams, 2000). Finally, according to the CaR-FA-X model, "impaired executive control" is a third contributor to overgeneral memory. Impaired executive control is associated both with failure to inhibit irrelevant information and reduced processing resources, both of which interfere with retrieval of specific autobiographical memory. In regard to traumatized individuals, the CaR-Fa-X model specifies that trauma-related intrusions, and effortful attempts to avoid and control such intrusions, lead to diminished executive resources to apply to retrieval of specific memories, thus resulting in overgeneral autobiographical memory.

Although these models are powerful and elegant, they mainly point to autobiographical memory deficits as a result of traumatization. Furthermore, support for these models is based primarily on a single type of autobiographical memory test, one that fails to assess autobiographical memory accuracy. As will be discussed later in the present chapter, there are reasons to suspect that autobiographical memory in traumatized individuals may at times be particularly accurate. To develop this thesis, we first turn to studies on attention in maltreated children and adults as they relate to autobiographical memory.

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