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Post traumatic memory

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To date, there has not been a single case of an individual capable of recalling every memory in their life. However, there are those who have these skills from teenage years, or from within adulthood (Parker, Cahill, McGaugh, 2006). Whilst they do not remember every little thing, they remember enough and can actively recall, with precision, specific events on any given day. The ability to recall every single memory in your life may be construed as a positive ability by some. When these individuals were asked whether or not they find their abilities useful, the most concise reply is often, “My personal experiences are vivid, like a running movie that never stops.”The problem that excellent recall imposes, is that with each positive memory remembered, each negative is clearly remembered as well. When asked to explain the price of this skill, the answer is usually similar; “When unpleasant things happen, they become a focal point. A distraction.” Is the ability to forget such a bad thing when examining the negative events that occur in life?Theoretical Concepts of Traumatic Memory

The brain and the mind, are two very different concepts, even though some may think they're the same. The mind (memory) is relatively unknown in fact. Theoretical concepts as to how memories are stored are the limit of memory research; little is known overall about the brain. The logic is that abnormally traumatic events are stored differently than regular memories (non-traumatic events). Using this theoretical construct, it is perceived that traumatic memories are mainly perceptually processed (Rosen, 2004, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Issues and Controversies). Or are they?

Traumatic Memory Processing

What is perceptually processed? Our mind uses our five senses, sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, to record everything that goes on around us. Perception is what we perceive with each sense, and what is recorded in our brain at a given time. Think eyewitness accounts. Its quite usual to hear five people give several different responses to what they witnessed, all viewing the same event, because each person senses uniquely. Using an explosion and a vehicle rushing from the scene, one person may see a white van, though their brain is tuned more towards hearing, and focused upon the sound of the explosion. A fragment also happen to land on their skin. The van may in fact be red, but they perceived it to be white, as they where actually focused on the sound and the fragments touch, and not primarily the van quickly driving off (sight).

This theory explains why fragments of memory are stored vs. complete memories, and further explains why dissociative or psychogenic amnesia occurs, even the reliving experience of a flashback, being primarily sensory based. This dissociative processing style, then overlaps directly with dissociative and PTSD symptomology.

Traumatic Memory Recollection

Continuing from the above theoretical construct, fragmented memory becomes apparent the moment a person attempts to reconstruct an event, yet suddenly find large pieces of information missing, the recollection is far from perfect, repetition of information is present and overall, the recollection is chaotic at best.

These fragmented memories are then experienced through flashbacks (senses), nightmares (fragmented pieces of the event) and bodily sensations. Traumatic memory theories are built upon this basis, when reviewing the re-experienced symptoms (Rosen, Frueh, 2010, Clinicians Guide to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder). If these theories are correct, then the foundation for focus lay within the reconstruction of fragmented memories, to create a complete picture. This complete picture is then processed, thus no longer disturbing and creating symptoms.

Summating Traumatic Memory Processing

Summating traumatic memory processing theories, is to simply state that trauma has a direct impact on how our memories are being organized through our senses.

With all theories come counter theories, and evidence, which balance the equation. Whilst the above theories hold extremely strong, the problem to date is that traumatic memories are not unique. Which means, they are exactly the same as any other memory, they just aren't stored fully when assimilated due to the traumatic event being sensed around the individual at that given time. So individual duress is one factor on how a traumatic occurrence changes between individuals.

Whilst fragmented memories can theoretically be substantiated from the symptom base, there are also those who have these exact symptoms, flashbacks, nightmares and bodily sensations. Yet can process their traumatic event accurately, substantiated to the letter by by-standers recollections of the event. If you didn't understand the complexity of the brain as yet, you should now, hence why matters of the brain are mostly theory, even those witnessed through neuroimaging. These devices still do not explain the exact going on within memory, but are providing greater experience to substantiate or unsubstantiate current theories (Bryant, 2007, Journal of Anxiety Disorders: Does Dissociation Further our Understanding of PTSD?, p 183 - 191).

Normal Memory Processing

This process tends to have far more empirical research ascertaining validity than traumatic memory processing, and may even intertwine at some points with traumatic memory processing theory. Again, memory is really quite unknown and only theoretical. Theorists argue that traumatic memories are processed and stored using the same mechanisms that apply to all autobiographical memories; this simply means all memories are processed and stored equally. Where research tends to excel for this theory is within emotional processing, which shows far more substance that emotional memory becomes better remembered, not less, as traumatic memory processing theories utilize (LaBar, Cabeza, 2006).

As traumatic memories are so distinctively emotional, they form a cognitive reference point. What's meant by this, is that these memories have such a significant and substantial impact upon our memory, that they change our perceptions of life, the world even. This explains how suddenly a person feels the world is no longer safe, or specific places, people or items are no longer perceived safe. The emotional attachment to the traumatic event itself is so significant that it distorts what we perceived as the way things are. A turning point in ones life is a rational explanation.

Memory Functions

By using the normal memory processing theory, you can apply this as a more rational explanation with a foundation of theoretical substance, to those emotionally positive events in our lives, births, weddings, strong friendships, etc. These events have an extremely emotional context to them, so they become deeper ingrained within our memory as points of significance within our life. Albeit positive, the same is being rationalized for negative events.

Experimental evidence on this position comes from studies showing that the degree to which traumatic experiences are integrated into autobiographical memory, is positively related to severity of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptomatology and may even predict PTSD symptoms, irrespective of the degree to which dissociative experiencing was present (Berntsen, Rubin, 2007).

Summating Normal Memory Processing

You may wonder how the original traumatic processing theory could change so drastically. The simple answer is that existing theories are corrected through systematic ongoing research. Neuroimaging is the big newcomer today, allowing scientists to actually view specific aspects of the brain as they are being used, and under what circumstances, instead of only guessing (theoretical hypotheses).

The current implication on shifting away from traumatic memory processing, and understanding that traumatic memories are actually stored and processed the same as any other memory, is that current methods used in therapy to identify and reintegrate fragments, (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) or attempted recovery of memories (Hypnosis), is more likely to cause harm than good. Neuroscience provides empirical data telling us that existing theory is just that, and instead what should be focused on is what is actually remembered, nothing more. This leads directly into the next section on traumatic amnesia and false memories, also now empirically sound thanks to neuroscience efforts.

Traumatic Amnesia

There is with zero doubt that some victims enduring trauma, dissociate or repress their traumatic experience, failing to have a clear memory of the event. Saying that, are the memories actually encoded within the brain at all? Studies that often cite support of traumatic amnesia are also often misunderstood. It is the encoding that differs, ie. the brains capture of the event. What is normally encoded and what is forgotten naturally differs (McNally, Geraerts, 2009). Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA) is extremely typical using this more current model, in that some people accurately remember their CSA experience as an adult, and others remember little or none.

Normal Memory Encoding vs. Forgetting

A diagnostic criterion of PTSD is an inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma. This has been interpreted various ways and is ambiguous to say the least. Yet a physician of substance within the field of trauma will understand that a memory that cannot be recalled, cannot be clearly ascertained as unable to be recalled vs. actually never encoded into memory in the first place.

A less than acceptable therapist may plant memories through leading statements by trying to recover memory or fragments, which is why therapists are trained not to do this in the first instance, as it produces false memories. After all, not all sensory inputs arising from a traumatic experience become encoded into memory, therefor, failing to remember an event that was never encoded into memory in the first place, does not constitute amnesia. Amnesia refers to material that is encoded, that cannot be retrieved.

It's not uncommon that everyday forgetfulness is confused with some form of amnesia. A person having experienced a traumatic event often report trouble remembering normal daily activities, future events, etc. This type of memory impairment is everyday forgetfulness, and should not be inferred as a difficulty in remembering the trauma itself.

Childhood traumatic event memories are often misunderstood through interpretation between amnesia, forgetfulness and ability to recall trauma. The majority of people cannot remember much of their activities prior to age 4 or 5, let alone with any significant clarity (Femina, Yeager, Lewis, 1990). Brain maturity makes it extremely difficult to actually recall within these early years, a teenager attempting to recall within these years is often fraught with vast gaps, let alone adulthood or adding traumatic experience into the equation. Childhood amnesia is perfectly normal, and every single human will have this. It should not be confused with traumatic amnesia, purely because a traumatic event occurred within these early years of life.

Traumatic amnesia can also be confused with a patients failure to disclose, or organic amnesia, which requires direct damage to the brain. Psychogenic amnesia is another within the equation, and is different again, being there is no organic reason, and is purely psychological based, which clears within hours, days or weeks following a traumatic event.

False Memories

To consider how someone can recall a traumatic memory that actually never happened, you could reasonably expect that to be somewhat, implausible, though its very real. You have heard of people who recall memories of being abducted by aliens, or previous lives lived. Coincidentally, the majority of these recollections have been done under either guided imagery, hypnosis, dream interpretation or another form of highly suggestive treatment(Loftus, Davis, 2006). In simple, the images are implanted through leading questions or statements, either planting something that never existed, or confirming a memory, either of which can be further self-manifested upon.

Human memory is fallible, which means a person can easily add their own pieces into an existing memory, or create an entire memory. It is common to hear someone quote a memory, that in fact they watched in a movie. They speak of it as it happened to them, but instead they only watched it happen. When it was first argued whether autobiographical memories could be implanted, they thought it couldn't be done, yet found vastly different results. Experiments have shown the successful plantation of childhood memories within adults ranging from being lost in a shopping mall for an extended period, hospitalized overnight, loss of a family pet, meeting a famous person, eventful birthday party and much more. The results clearly indicate false memory is extremely easily implanted (Hyman, Husband, Billings, 1995; Loftus, Pickrell, 1995).

So, does this same result apply to significant emotional events, ie. traumatic. Well, the answer is yes.

Successful Planting Of False Memories

A study reviewing this exact nature produced one third of the subjects successfully accepting a false childhood memory of believing they had nearly drowned as a child and were rescued by a lifeguard (Heaps, Nash, 2001). Another group, nearly 50% of, successfully believed they had endured a vicious animal attack. Imagination alone has proved successful implantation of memories that never happened (Mazzoni, Memon, 2003). The use of doctoring a photograph to show a childhood ballooning adventure, successfully demonstrated approximately 50% of the subjects recollecting and describing partially or completely their ballooning adventure as a child, even though it never happened, and was confirmed as never happening by family members (Wade, Garry, Read, Lindsay, 2002).

These type of experiments have also gone beyond just thoughts, to review associated behaviors as well. A study falsely implanted memories of a bad food experience, which then demonstrated a majority, when being given that food not accepting it, not enjoying it, or only tasting it then leaving it. These type of studies very clearly demonstrate thought being passed to behavior.

The point here, is that suggestive memory is more common than you think. This is why Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is so controversial, because the therapist asks leading questions, such as, "do you feel like you have different personalities" or, they provide a confirming statement of their interpretation. The moment that question or statement is made, the suggestion is now planted, and statistics demonstrates that 30% or more of people will manifest this false notion, partially or completely, let alone the percentages being significantly higher for already traumatized individuals with low self esteem and susceptible to compliance of anything told by an authority figure (aka. therapist). Worst yet, the Internet is a patients and physicians worst enemy, as the patient has researched the subject, knows what symptoms or basis to tell a physician in session, and then the physician themselves continue and perpetuate the implanting, and confirmation of symptoms based on already experienced events.

In short, if you read about it prior to attending a physician, chances are you have self implanted false memories surrounding symptomology.

Recovered Memories

With the power of a therapist and patient working together over many sessions, using therapies such as guided imagery, hypnosis, dream interpretation and so forth, false memories of childhood sexual abuse have arisen. Studies using CSA patients with recovered memories, demonstrated that those with recovered memories where more susceptible to accepting false memories and falsely recalled and recognized non-presented lures, compared to those that had a continuous memory of their CSA (Bremner, Shobe, Kihlstrom, 2000; Clancy, Schacter, McNally, Pitman, 2000).

Forgetting Prior Memories

Does this mean that every recovered memory is false? No. Research outside of labs where sources have been sought to identify and confirm abuse, have shown some recovered memories uncover actual abuse that did take place. Saying that, these cases where uncovered outside of therapy, and corroborative information was found for each event. An event can trigger a memory recollection, though the key here is that these recollections are not within a therapy environment, which would otherwise lead to suggestive techniques being used and memory implantation occurring. It has also been found that those with partners, the person has often mentioned some aspect or clue, without knowledge of the memory itself. Studies support those minority with claimed recovered memories also typically trying not to think about it vs. actually forgotten the memory.

Recovered Memory Summation

With two types of recovered memory, one gradually over-time in therapy, the second instantaneously, naturally, outside of therapy. Two options, yet can both be correct? Studies performed show that without question, only the natural recovery definitively shows no false memory implantation, and also highlights remarked high percentages in validation through finding a person that can corroborate the event through either, witnessing, being told within a week or two after the event by the person, the perpetrator admitting or another person reporting the same / similar event by the perpetrator (Geraerts, Schooler, Merckelbach, Jelicic, Hauer, Ambadar, 2007).

The lack of corroboration from memories recovered in therapy sends out a clear warning to therapists and patients, on being either subjected or subjugating yourself, to such leading therapy methods to recover memory. When both subject groups were exposed to a false memory test, only those who recovered their memories in suggestive therapy showed increased false memory formation; neither those who spontaneously recovered or those who had a continuous access to childhood abuse memories showed such a pattern (Geraerts, Lindsay, Merckelback, Jelicie, et al., 2009).


Posttraumatic memory can be quite the weapon when combined with the wrong therapist, the Internet, and even your own brain left to its own devices of thought and self suggestive manipulation. Should you begin questioning your trauma reliance now? Not unless you fall into the above negative identifiers, and if you do, then you should seek evidence to confirm memories and not hasten the situation with further suggestive therapies or self interpretation (guessing).
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just wondering..,.. i had something very terrible happen to me when i was twelve… on that day… 45 years ago… feels weird like that was the day i was born… i have only a few memories of my whole life prior to the attack …. i would love to have those prior memories back….has anyone ever heard of this?
I recently have had similar situation happen to me – But I cant even tell my phycologist about it as its so dreadful. I remember something happened to me when I was about 11 after my mum died. The flashback has only come into my memory now and although I have complex PTSD – I wonder if its my mind playing tricks. ? does the mind play tricks with us and make up stuff ?
I forgot the same memory twice. I figured out my chronic nightmares when I was 11, and promptly forgot again until I was 14. Meanwhile everyone thought I forgot at the age of 3 and things were fine and dandy till I FINALLY had the courage to ask wtf WAS that (and found out it was all horribly true).
That took me a really long time, because very sadly it was in the early 90's, I was a smart kid on the internet, "THe Courage to Heal" was all over the place and the controversy led me to diagnose myself with False Memory Syndrome because the most beloved person in my life ... he CAN'T. I missed the nuance where.. WHERE does the memory come from? I had no psychiatric person, no person telling me bad things. I thought I invented such creative awful things for the person I loved most in the world. (I think that's why I forgot the second time. The first act of remembering was as traumatic as the original...?) Lots of nuances here. That BOOK. That "scandal."
I'm rambling at the moment but I find this all fascinating, thanks for sharing your work and research.
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