Psykologisk Institut

Dorthe Berntsen

The reconstructive nature of involuntary autobiographical memories

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Influential clinical theories propose that parts of traumatic or stressful events are stored in an unprocessed, purely perceptual form, which is inaccessible for voluntary retrieval but may spontaneously return to consciousness involuntarily in response to matching cues. This leads to perceptually vivid, and largely veridical involuntary memories of the traumatic scene, remembered with the original emotions and from the same vantage point as during the event. Several lines of evidence contradict this position. First, involuntary memories are not more veridical than memories retrieved deliberately. Second, involuntary memories for trauma-related events are not more frequently remembered with the original first-person perspective, and individuals with PTSD do not report more first-person involuntary memories than individuals without PTSD. Third, involuntary memories of stressful moments that are subjectively experienced as repetitive do not come to mind in a fixed and unchangeable form. Fourth, involuntary memories do not have privileged access to the most emotional moments (so-called hotspots) of a stressful event and the content and choice of hotspots change over time. Fourth, although involuntary memories are associated with enhanced emotional impact, this does not imply reactivation of the original emotion. We conclude that involuntary memories, although effortless, are products of (re)constructive processes.

StatusE-pub ahead of print - 17 jan. 2021

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