Memory for emotional events captivates writers, scholars, citizens, and scientists. From theories, historic and recent, concerning the unconscious preservation of traumatic memories to those suggesting that traumatic experiences are well preserved in our conscious mind, theorists have tried to unravel the mysteries of emotion and memory. Across the centuries, the most popular belief has been that records of our experiences, particularly emotional and traumatic ones, are preserved with reasonable accuracy in our memory system. Even as recently as the early twentieth century, writers were suggesting that every experience, even the very earliest, "leaves its mark. . . . Nothing of good or evil is ever lost" (Thorndike, 1905, pp. 330-331). Further, it is thought that the earlier these experiences occur in childhood, the more formative they are, and the more likely they are to remain in memory, exerting their influence throughout our lives regardless of whether we can bring these experiences to consciousness (see Howe & Courage, 2004). Such ideas were pivotal in Freudian theory as well as in many other conceptions of social, emotional, and personality development (e.g., Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991). Adverse early experience is thought to be at the root of later aberrant adult outcomes regardless of whether these experiences can be remembered (for reviews of these ideas, see Howe, in press; Kagan, 1996).
Recently, we have seen a steep rise in scientific research concerning the role of stress and trauma in memories for childhood experiences. Psychological science is now, more than ever, grappling with questions about whether traumatic childhood experiences are remembered differently than nontraumatic experiences. Does the fact that one has experienced trauma during childhood affect subsequent memory processing? Can children who have been maltreated remember and report those experiences accurately? Indeed, we are concerned not just with memory for traumatic and stressful events themselves but also with the long-term effects of these experiences on the course of "normal" memory development.
Few questions in developmental psychology have received as much international attention as have those concerning the impact of childhood trauma on memory. Until recently, the lack of scientific research to constrain theory has fueled controversy about such questions as "Does childhood trauma lead to deficits in memory, including a greater propensity for errors of commission (e.g., 'false memory') or errors of omission (e.g., 'lost memory')?" and "Are the neurohormonal changes that are linked to childhood trauma and stress associated with changes in children's basic memory processing abilities?" Scientists have also struggled with how to conceptualize and measure distress and other negative emotions—for instance, in terms of discrete emotions (fear, anger, sadness), physiological responsivity (e.g., through cortisol production; functional magnetic resonance imaging), or observer ratings.
To begin to answer these and other questions, the authors of the chapters in this book have focused on neurobiological, cognitive, clinical, and legal areas as they relate specifically to stress, trauma, and memory development. These areas were selected in order to (a) focus attention on the impact of stress and trauma on memory development by showcasing the most recent and innovative work and theories, (b) highlight the consequences of early traumatic experiences for subsequent memory performance, and (c) capture relations of early trauma to other measures of cognitive and clinical functioning in childhood, as well as to the longevity of trauma memories formed early in life.
In approaching these questions, we sought a translational approach, one in which science and practice converge. First, we wanted to provide a framework in which basic research on memory development can be expanded into the study of childhood trauma and maltreatment (for an overview, see Howe, Cicchetti, & Toth, 2006). Here, authors were asked to examine links between "normal" patterns of memory development and those observed when children had experienced stress and trauma. Second, we wanted to know what science tells us about the cognitive and neuro-physiological underpinnings of memory development, trauma, and stress, to inform practice in the clinical and forensic realms. Of course, these latter areas, in turn, provide many of the questions to which basic science needs to attend to fully understand the complexities of stress, trauma, and memory development.
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