christin m. ogle, stephanie d. block, LAToNYA s. HARRis, MicHELLE cuLvER, else-marie AuGusTI, susAN TIMMER, Anthony uRQuizA, AND GAIL s. GooDMAN
1996, January 17th. The Northridge Earthquake. I was at my nanny's house where I was spending the night. It was about 4:30 in the morning. I had hardwood floors in my room. I heard a rumble. I had just got back from the bathroom, so I was kind of awake. The window in my room looked down to the backyard, and the pool splashed. I went to my window. I remember my bed moving across the room to the bedroom door. My nanny ran from down the hall. There were three closets between her room and my room. They were all opening and things were falling.
—"specific" autobiographical memory report
Before my father died. I was four and all I remember is a phone call. Then my mom started crying.
—"general" autobiographical memory report
All of us have undoubtedly experienced a multitude of events in childhood and adulthood that we now cannot remember in detail, whereas other events stand out in memory with particular clarity. However, for some individuals, difficulties in the ability to recall specific details of autobiographical experiences are especially pronounced (e.g., Williams et al., 2007). Such deficits in autobiographical memory specificity have been linked to childhood trauma, such as child maltreatment (Kuyken & Brewin,1995).
Despite an extensive body of research that now exists on deficits in autobiographical memory specificity, few studies have examined the accuracy of autobiographical memory in trauma victims. Scientific studies of trauma victims' accuracy on memory tasks have produced some surprising results, particularly for victims who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Of interest, although PTSD is associated with certain memory deficits on laboratory memory tasks (e.g., Bremner, Shobe, & Kihlstrom, 2000), trauma is associated with particularly strong and accurate memory for information relevant to past traumatic experiences, especially in individuals with symptoms of PTSD (e.g., Vrana, Roodman, & Beckham, 1995). An important question is whether such findings generalize to the accuracy of autobiographical memory. One goal of the present chapter is to review research on the specificity and accuracy of autobiographical memory, as well as to discuss research on general memory functioning, in individuals with trauma histories. In doing so, we explore relations between trauma, post-traumatic symptoms, and memory.
Current research on the impact of trauma on autobiographical memory is further limited by a lack of developmental investigation. Developmental examinations of trauma and memory are important not only to advance theory but also to guide intervention and application. For example, it is of interest whether adverse (or beneficial) effects of trauma on autobiographical memory begin in childhood or adolescence or are emergent only in adulthood. The present chapter reviews research on memory functioning in both children and adult trauma victims to explore the developmental trajectory of relations between trauma and memory.
Of particular relevance to our chapter is the traumatization associated with child sexual abuse. Memory in child sexual abuse victims has been a topic of much controversy, for instance, regarding "repressed memory." However, often absent from such controversies is a scientific understanding of basic autobiographical memory functioning in victims of childhood trauma. It is possible that child maltreatment and its emotional sequelae do not affect this special memory system. Alternatively, individuals who have suffered childhood maltreatment may be motivated to suppress conscious access to autobiographical memories (e.g., of abuse incidents or of childhood experiences in general), or at least to avoid public discussion of them, due to the negative affect involved. Such avoidance is believed to contribute to overgeneral memory (the opposite of memory specificity).
Another possibility, one explored in the present chapter, is that individuals with maltreatment histories, especially those with PTSD, might be hypervigilant to trauma and often consumed with thoughts of traumatic childhood incidents and their sequelae, including intrusive thoughts that are difficult to control. These intrusive thoughts may serve to increase the accuracy of childhood memories, for example, through rehearsal. At the same time, these individuals' heightened attention to trauma-related memories might come at the expense of attention to and memory of nontrauma-related information, for instance, as measured by standard laboratory tasks. We explore such possibilities in this chapter through our discussion of the role of attention in emotional processing and subsequent memory for trauma- and nontrauma-related information in maltreated populations,
Specifically, in this chapter, we review scientific theory and empirical research on (a) the development of autobiographical memory and an overgeneral autobiographical retrieval style, (b) attention to trauma-related versus nontrauma-related information as potentially relevant to memory, (c) memory for trauma-related information in traumatized individuals compared to (d) memory for neutral information in traumatized individuals, and (e) autobiographical memory specificity and accuracy in nontraumatized and traumatized adolescents and adults. We also present preliminary findings from an ongoing study that examines autobiographical memory development in documented child sexual abuse victims versus matched controls with no known history of child sexual abuse.
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