Individuals with child maltreatment histories, especially if they have PTSD, may overfocus on trauma in their lives and in their pasts. This focus may make their autobiographical memories particularly accurate, especially when trauma-related information is at issue. Perhaps the trauma and related experiences become the focus of their lives, often in an intrusive and uncontrollable way, leading to better memory but also distracting the person on laboratory tasks (and perhaps other tasks as well) that require sustained attention. However, additional research is needed on whether child maltreatment and PTSD also contribute to certain distortions of autobiographical memory. If, for example, some victims overinterpret neutral information or experiences as trauma-related (Windmann & Krüger, 1998), autobiographical memory errors could result. To the extent that trauma predisposes victims to dissociation, especially under conditions of high stress, memory errors may arise (Eisen et al., 2007). Overall, our review and our preliminary findings imply that caution should be used in extrapolating and generalizing performance on laboratory tasks to autobiographical memory in victims of traumatic events such as child sexual abuse.
There is ample room for further research on autobiographical memory in trauma victims. For example, studies on the accuracy of autobiographical memory are needed not only for adolescents and adults who experienced childhood trauma but also for young children and the elderly with such experiences. Moreover, the precise age at which the trauma was suffered and the ages at which subsequent traumas occurred need to be taken into account, as do factors associated with the main trauma (e.g., removal from home and subsequent placement in a foster home). Regarding specificity, additional research aimed at refining existing theoretical accounts of memory specificity is needed to advance our understanding of the central mechanisms underlying impoverished autobiographical memory. Specific to Williams' (1996) theory, future research should examine relations between the age at which the trauma occurred and subsequent changes in degree of memory specificity for both trauma-related and non-trauma-related autobiographical experiences. Furthermore, future research is needed to differentiate the contribution of encoding versus retrieval processes to overgeneral autobiographical memory. Similarly, research that distinguishes between reduced willingness to discuss negative autobiographical events and actual memory impairment might clarify the role of nonmemorial factors related to affect regulation in overgeneral memory. Finally, regarding both accuracy and specificity, research examining the impact of therapy might elucidate whether reports of greater accuracy and specificity in trauma victims are due to rehearsal of autobiographical experiences during therapy. Overall, there is much still to learn in this important area of study.
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