Memory for Trauma Related Information in Traumatized Populations

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Given attentional biases in favor of trauma-related information in child maltreatment victims and/or individuals with PTSD, one might expect particularly good memory for such information. Indeed there is support for such findings in the adult literature. For instance, Vrana et al. (1995) examined modified Stroop interference for trauma-related (i.e., Vietnam-specific, Vietnam-general), negative, and neutral words in relation to general free recall and recognition memory for these three word types in combat veterans with and without PTSD. Although veterans in general showed greater Stroop interference for trauma-related than for neutral words, veterans with PTSD evinced more interference across all word categories than veterans without PTSD. Of importance, veterans with PTSD also demonstrated better recall and more accurate recognition memory both overall and of emotional words than veterans without PTSD. In a similar study, Golier, Yehuda, Lupien, and Harvey (2003) tested elderly Holocaust survivors' memory for Holocaust-related words using paired-associate learning and word-stem completion tasks. Compared to matched controls, adult Holocaust survivors with PTSD recalled more Holocaust-related than neutral word pairs (but see Mathews & MacLeod, 1985; Mogg, Mathews, & Weinman, 1989).

Research with adult victims of child sexual abuse using the directed-forgetting paradigm reveals related findings. Specifically, McNally, Metzger, Lasko, Clancy, and Pitman (1998) found that compared to child sexual abuse victims without PTSD and a nonabused control group, child sexual abuse victims with PTSD exhibited recall memory deficits for positive and neutral words but not for trauma-related stimuli. For words that participants were instructed to forget, no differences were found in recall among groups by word type (e.g., trauma-related, neutral, or positive words), suggesting that, at least in this study, the adults demonstrated a bias in favor of trauma-related to-be-remembered items but not for trauma-related to-be-forgotten items. Furthermore, child sexual abuse victims' recall of nontrauma words, but not trauma words, was related to depression and anxiety levels. The increased attention of child sexual abuse victims with PTSD to trauma-related stimuli may have led to their comparatively better memory for trauma stimuli as compared to nontrauma stimuli.

Evidence of trauma-related memory biases also comes from research on children and adolescents. Moradi and colleagues (2000) examined memory for emotionally valenced and trauma-relevant material in children and adolescents (9 to 17 years of age) with PTSD resulting from traffic accidents or exposure to violence. Participants were presented with positive, negative (depression- and trauma-related, general threat), and neutral words and then completed a free recall and recognition memory test. Overall, the PTSD group correctly recalled fewer words than the control group, supporting the relation between memory deficits and PTSD. However, compared to control participants, the PTSD group demonstrated a memory bias for negative information by recalling more negative words (including trauma-related words) than neutral and positive words.

Such findings suggest that an attentional bias toward trauma-related information can result in better memory for such information. At times, trauma victims with PTSD evince better memory for trauma-related information than do nontraumatized controls; at other times, trauma victims show deficits in memory compared to the nontraumatized controls, except when trauma-related information is to be remembered. Although these studies do not directly concern autobiographical memory retrieval, their findings may have implications for such memory processes.

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