When I tell people I am a researcher in autobiographical memory they look blank and confused. But when I then say that autobiographical memory is just the scientific term for our memory, for things which have happened to us as part of our personal life-story I then get bombarded with questions, or more accurately, people begin to tell me about their own memories. Memories of happy times from their childhood or stressful events in their lives they just can’t forget. What becomes clear, is how important our memories are to our sense of identity and also, how emotionally evocative our memories can be. Memories for events which happened decades ago can bring laughter or tears, even the same memory can make you laugh one day and cry the next.
For individuals living with mental health problems such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression, memories can become a daily source of stress and anxiety. Even memories of positive life-events become tainted with a sense of a past life filled with happier times. In our book Clinical Perspectives on Autobiographical Memory we bring together a number of psychologists who are pioneering research in this area to try answer key questions surrounding how we remember our own personal past and how our memories contribute to current and future mental health.
In a classic study discussed in the book, one of our authors Richard McNally found that Vietnam War veterans with PTSD experienced difficulties when remembering specific detailed life-events. Interestingly he found that these difficulties were even more pronounced in veterans who attended the study wearing war regalia, such as army fatigues and war medals. These regalia-wearing veterans also remembered life-events from the Vietnam War more frequently than both the other participants with PTSD and the healthy participants. I mention this study because it reflects a number of features in the relationship we have to our autobiographical memories during emotional distress.
Stressful life experiences have the potential to become powerful memories because they can evoke strong emotions and physical reactions. Even when we try not to think about these memories, they still play on our mind like a child with an out of tune violin. If our mental health is good, we know that with time, the memory, along with the intensity of our emotional reactions, will fade into the background like other stressful experiences before. However, if, like the war veterans suffering from PTSD, our psychological resources are low, these memories begin to take center stage and can continue to pervade our thoughts and actions for decades.
However, emerging research by clinical psychologists suggests that working therapeutically with key features of autobiographical memory in individuals with psychological disorders can lead to improvements in mental health. Teaching individuals to be more specific and detail-oriented when remembering life-events and when experiencing daily stresses can lead to a reduction in symptoms of depression, anxiety and rumination. Another line of research looks at how completing visuospatial tasks such as the game TETRIS immediately following trauma footage can reduce the frequency of flashback memories about the traumatic experience. Finally, research discussed in the book also shows how cognitive therapy can be an effective treatment for PTSD in both adults and children. This is done by helping individuals re-experience features of their traumatic life-events in a safe environment and by working with how these experiences are incorporated into individuals’ own personal life stories.
“Memories are the key not to the past, but to the future”: I think these words from Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch resistance fighter imprisoned in two concentration camps during World War II, reflect the exciting potential for future clinical research into autobiographical memory: How working with features of autobiographical memory and how people react to their memories during psychological therapy can lead to reductions in mental distress, improvements in psychological well-being and a brighter future for individuals experiencing psychological disorders.