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“Try not to dwell too much on the past,” advise psychologists from the Beckman Institute in Illinois. They assert that the aftermath of a painful event is more memorable and significant than the events leading up to it. Their study, published in the journal Cognition and Emotion, suggests that we tend to recall the moments immediately following a trauma more clearly than those preceding it.
Understanding the relationship between trauma and memory is crucial for improving therapies for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and combating cognitive decline. Lead author Paul Bogdan, a researcher at the University of Illinois, adds, “This research opens a new paradigm for understanding the impact of emotions on memory.”
Understanding the Connection Between Mental Health and Memory
The team has spent over 15 years studying this connection, focusing on syndromes characterized by:
The intrusion of unwanted memories into daily life which deteriorates health and can lead to anxiety disorders, depression, and PTSD.
Studying traumatic memories is sensitive, as our brains tend to automatically process negative experiences. Broad ideas overshadow details, peripheral features give way to central themes, and specific critical moments are often isolated from their context. The research was conducted through two identical experiments:
- An initial study with 72 participants to better identify the timeline of memories associated with negative emotions;
- A replication study with 150 participants to confirm the initial findings.
Participants viewed a series of images simulating a sequence of memories. Half of the images were meant to evoke negative emotional responses, and the other half were emotionally neutral. To contextualize the images – bringing them closer to memory – participants were asked to imagine they were privately traveling between the photographed places and to create a “common thread” linking them. The goal was to reconstruct a narrative connecting these consecutive images.
An hour later, participants viewed pairs of images from the series. For each pair, they were asked if the second image occurred directly before or after the first, or “neither.” The two experiments confirm that:
- Participants more accurately placed the second image, following the negative memory, than the one before.
- When participants saw a negative image, they better remembered the neutral images that followed; conversely, participants viewing a neutral image more consistently placed the negative images that preceded it.
Cognitive therapies could enhance “emotional safety” by focusing on the most disturbing memories. These therapies should not concentrate on the memories “before,” but rather those “after.” “It’s counterintuitive to think that people have evolved to remember well the events leading to negative outcomes,” the researchers write.
If you were bitten by a snake, would you remember what you did before that?
Negative emotional peaks can lead to increased concentration and heightened alertness, making our brains better remember what happens next. This has implications not only for cognitive therapies that need to adapt to this mechanism but also for forensic investigations:
People are more likely to forget details that preceded a negative event
What are the implications? Regaining control over traumatic memories might also require linking them to their context – their place and time of origin. Reversing cognitive impairments would also involve restoring “contextual memory,” which suffers the most.
How does this study impact PTSD treatment strategies?
By revealing that memories post-trauma are more vividly recalled than those preceding it, the study guides therapists to concentrate on these aftermath moments in PTSD treatments, potentially leading to more effective healing processes.
Paul C. Bogdan, Sanda Dolcos, Kara D. Federmeier, Alejandro Lleras, Hillary Schwarb & Florin Dolcos (2023) Emotional dissociations in temporal associations: opposing effects of arousal on memory for details surrounding unpleasant events, Cognition and Emotion, https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2023.2270196