Early Autobiographical Memory and Early Overgeneral Memory

In considering the effects of trauma on autobiographical memory, it is first important to review what is known from research and theory about the emergence of this specific memory function. Many diverse lines of research converge to suggest that children's ability to form and verbally recall enduring memories of specific, personal events develops at approximately 2.5 to 3 years of age, with some 2-year-olds able to accurately remember events dating back to age 1 (Peterson, 2002). Memory in adults and older children for the period prior to approximately 2.5 to 3 years is thought to be characterized by a psychological phenomenon called infantile amnesia, the inability to remember early childhood events. We know of few studies, however, that have examined the emergence of autobiographical memory in maltreated young children (for exceptions, see Eisen, Goodman, Qin, Davis, & Crayton, 2007; Eisen, Qin, Goodman, & Davis, 2002).

Despite general consensus among developmental researchers on the existence of infantile amnesia (but see Peterson, 2002), many diverse theories attempt to explain the cause of this memory phenomenon (e.g., neurological immaturity, storage failure, retrieval failure) and/or attempt to explain the development of autobiographical memory. Although such theories were not developed with maltreated children in mind, they may provide insight into possible memory advantages or deficits for such children and for adults who have child abuse histories.

The personalization theory of autobiographical memory states that the emergence of the cognitive self marks the onset of autobiographical memory and concurrently the end of infantile amnesia (Howe & Courage, 1993, 1997). According to this theory, children at approximately 18 to 24 months of age develop an internal representation of the self that allows experiences to take on personal meaning. A child's developing representation of the self facilitates the personalization of event memory by serving as the common element around which experiences are cog-nitively organized. However, in children who have been maltreated from an early age, the child's sense of self is likely to include feelings of being unworthy and unloved. Feelings of self-protection may also be particularly heightened. To the extent that negative experiences are especially memorable and retained with accuracy (e.g., Christianson, 1992; Goodman, Hirschman, Hepps, & Rudy, 1991), a relatively high percentage of negative but generally correct autobiographical memories may result. However, to the extent that such experiences are painful to the self system and cognitively avoided (including at retrieval), a relatively high percentage of positive or neutral early memories might predominate for child abuse victims, with negative events retained poorly or reported infrequently.

A second theory of autobiographical memory development focuses on the role of language and socialization (Nelson, 1993). In this social interactionist theory, Fivush and Nelson (2004) propose that autobiographical memory is socially constructed through recounting past experiences with others (e.g., parents). According to this view, language is the medium through which children learn to understand and represent personal experiences. Children's autobiographical memory is therefore thought to develop concurrently with children's ability to use language at around 20 to 24 months of age. Children's emerging linguistic skills serve to structure and organize early personal experiences in memory, and allow children and adults to engage in conversation about past shared ex-perences or about details of an ongoing event. Through these adult-child memory dialogues, children learn to form coherent linguistic narratives of their experiences that facilitate the future recall of these events. However, for maltreated children (particularly those who have suffered neglect or physical abuse), on average, language delays are common (e.g., Eigsti & Cicchetti, 2004; Gaudin, 1999). Such delays may result from lack of appropriate verbal stimulation from parents. Maltreating parents may spend less time, or may be less motivated toward or adept at, talking with their children about shared experiences. Thus, according to Fivush and Nelson's theory, children who have suffered maltreatment might be delayed in autobiographical memory development.

Nelson and Gruendel (1988) and Fivush (2002) further proposed that developmental advances in event representation/script formation facilitate children's autobiographical memory by enhancing the ability to understand and represent re-occurring and unique one-time events. However, young children's reports of repeated events have been shown to be more general and less detailed than their reports of single, distinctive events (e.g., Fivush, 1984). Although with sufficient prompting, specific memories of single and repeated events are possible in young children, their preferential retrieval seems to be at the general level. These findings play an important role in one recent theory of the effects of childhood trauma on later memory.

Specifically, it has been proposed that individuals who suffer repeated childhood trauma may, for motivational reasons, have difficulty advancing beyond the level of general memory retrieval that is characteristic of young children (Williams, 1996). According to this view, the lack of retrieval of detailed memories contributes later to overgeneral autobiographical memory (Williams & Broadbent, 1986). Adolescents and adults who exhibit such overgeneral memory report personal memories in broad terms without reference to time and place (e.g., "I used to play at the park, and once I lost my favorite necklace" as opposed to "I remember the afternoon—it was a Sunday in the summer—I played in the park behind my house and lost my favorite necklace. We looked all day for it, until sundown, when we finally found it by the playground").

The motivation underlying the development of overgeneral memory, according to Williams and colleagues (1986, 2007), is that children who have suffered negative childhood events retrieve information in generic form as a means of controlling negative affect. That is, traumatized children are said to learn a defensive style ("functional avoidance") for coping with negative memories. When memories of traumatic events are triggered, often automatically, such memories may be accompanied by strong negative affect, which activates executive control processes to truncate retrieval and thus dampen recall of specific, episodic memory (Dalgleish et al., 2007; Williams et al., 2007). Although in the short term, functional avoidance may be adaptive, in the long term it is associated with maladjustment (e.g., depression). Williams (1996) also makes the point that over time, functional avoidance affects what is encoded; that is, new events are encoded in a more schematic or less detailed form. One difficulty for Williams's model is distinguishing among several possible mechanisms underlying overgeneral memory, such as functional avoidance versus lack of willingness to discuss past experiences. Nevertheless, Williams's model has generated a growing body of research and discussion (e.g., see Brewin, 2007, and Chapter 4 in this volume).

In support of Williams's theory, Kuyken and Brewin (1995) found that adults with histories of child maltreatment and who reported post-traumatic symptoms produced overgeneral memories at particularly high rates (but see Kuyken, Howell, & Dalgleish, 2006; Moore & Zoellner, 2007). Of special interest from a developmental perspective, for an overgeneral autobiographical memory style to emerge, it appears that the adverse events must occur in childhood (e.g., see Stokes, Dritschel, & Bekerian, 2004): traumatic events in adulthood alone do not lead to overgeneral autobiographical memory (e.g., Kangas, Henry, & Bryant, 2005; McNally, Litz, Prassas, Shin, & Weathers, 1994).

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Responses

  • rosamunda
    Does language help facilitate the development of autobiographical memory?
    6 years ago

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