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Understanding memory: How we remember traumatic events

Picture this: You’re listening to a gripping true crime podcast during your morning commute, so engrossed in the story that a near-miss on the road jolts you back to reality.

Later, as you recount the podcast to a coworker, you find the latter half of the episode vivid in your memory, while the beginning is just a blur. Why is that?

An interesting study from the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology offers some insights.

Humans remember events in a strange way

Psychologists here have found that our brains are more adept at remembering moments following a traumatic event than those leading up to it.

In other words, memory flows from negative to neutral. This is unintuitive.

“So, our results suggest that if insulted in a conversation, one would better retrieve what was said immediately afterward than what was said immediately beforehand,” said Paul Bogdan, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“You might imagine that humans evolved to have a good memory for what led to negative things,” Bogdan said. “If you got bit by a snake, what foolhardy thing were you doing beforehand?”

The dynamics of memory

This revelation has profound implications for understanding eyewitness testimonies, treating PTSD, and addressing memory decline in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

Bogdan, under the guidance of psychology professors Florin Dolcos and Sanda Dolcos at the Dolcos Lab, has been exploring the intricate relationship between mental health and memory.

The Dolcos Lab, with over 15 years of experience in the field, focuses on how unwanted memories intrude on our daily lives, exacerbating mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Their work has led to the development of an ’emotional security system’ — a cognitive therapy approach aimed at maintaining emotional stability and focus despite distressing memories.

Experiment: A journey through memories

Bogdan’s team conducted two parallel experiments, initially with 72 participants and then with 150 to confirm their findings.

Participants were shown a series of images designed to elicit either a negative emotional response or a neutral one.

They were asked to imagine themselves in these scenarios, effectively creating a storyline that linked the images. This process was intended to simulate a string of memories.

An hour later, participants revisited these images in pairs and were asked to determine the sequence –whether one image occurred immediately before or after another. There was also an option to indicate if they couldn’t recall the order.

Memory’s bias from negative to neutral

The results were strikingly consistent across both experiments. Participants were more accurate in placing the second image when it followed a negative memory on the timeline.

If shown a negative image first, they remembered the subsequent neutral event images better.

Conversely, if the sequence started with a neutral image, the placement of the preceding negative image was recalled more accurately.

This pattern suggests an unintuitive aspect of memory: we tend to remember what happens after a negative event more clearly than what occurs before it.

Bogdan articulates this with a relatable example: if insulted during a conversation, you’re likely to recall what was said immediately after the insult rather than before it.

“Suppose your partner unexpectedly insults you in the middle of an otherwise neutral discussion. Later, when you are trying to make sense of the encounter …, will you more accurately remember what happened before or after the insult?” Bogdan said. “Existing research does not give us a clear answer.”

Future directions: Cognitive therapies and beyond

The researchers believe this discovery has significant implications. In legal settings, for instance, it suggests that eyewitness accounts of events leading up to a crime might be less reliable than those describing what happened afterward.

In clinical settings, understanding this memory bias could be crucial in treating PTSD, where a neutral event can trigger an intense emotional response due to the disconnection of the traumatic memory from its original context.

The team is hopeful that these findings will enrich cognitive therapies for PTSD by focusing on recontextualizing traumatic memories.

Sanda Dolcos also points out the potential of using positive emotions to forge stronger memories, especially in combating memory issues in aging populations and conditions like Alzheimer’s.

“As people age, problems with memories become more serious, especially conditions like Alzheimer’s,” she said. “The memory for context suffers the most. If we know exactly what’s happening, we can build future strategies to better encode information that will help us help others with those conditions.”

In summary, this study advances our understanding of memory and emotion and opens doors to new therapeutic approaches. It challenges us to reconsider how we perceive, recall, and interact with our memories, especially in the aftermath of traumatic experiences.

The full study was published in the journal Cognition & Emotion.


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