Imagine this situation. You are talking to a 10-year-old child and you ask him:

- Tell me a story about you.

To which he replies:

- When I was younger I used to go fishing with my dad every Saturday morning.

Does that sound strange? Not likely. It’s not an unusual answer. But now imagine that the child had answered this instead:

- Last summer I had a birthday party and my dad rented a pony so we could ride him.

Do you see a difference? Although the first answer is common and completely appropriate, it is actually an example of a type of memory called ‘overgeneral autobiographical memory.’ This refers to a tendency to recall repeated events (“I used to go to Papa’s Pizza every sunday night and order…”) or general events that lasted for a significant amount of time (“When I was in my 30s, I used to…”), instead of specific events (“I once had a party where I rode a pony). We all employ overgeneral memories in some contexts, so there is nothing uniquely pathological about them. However, researchers have found that people with depression, as well as survivors of abuse, tend to deploy this type of memories much more frequently than people free from depression or a history of abuse. In addition, using high levels of overgeneral memories is associated with more negative prognosis in depression treatment. But we still don’t fully understand why. Do overgeneral memories contribute to depression, or are they a consequence of depression? Or alternatively, is it possible that they are not directly related to depression and that instead these memories reflect a strategy used by people with a history of traumatic events to limit the distress of remembering specific details of their lives?

A review of: Valentino, K., Toth, S., & Cicchetti, D. (2009). Autobiographical memory functioning among abused, neglected, and nonmaltreated children: the overgeneral memory effect Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2009.02072.x

In an article to be published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Yale University researcher Kristin Valentino and her colleagues addressed some of these questions by examining overgeneral memories in children. The study included 36 abused children, 34 neglected but not abused children, and 115 non-maltreated children. The children completed an autobiographical memory test. During the test the kids were presented with visual and auditory emotional cues (“sad”, “angry”, “happy”, etc) and were asked to recall one memory associated with such cues (“Tell me about a time that you felt happy”). The answers were coded for the level of overgeneral memories. The children also completed a vocabulary test (to control for cognitive skills) and a depression measure (to examine the association between overgeneral memories and depression). The authors also examined the effects of self-representations, but I will leave that portion of the study for a future discussion.

The results:

Abused children recalled more overgeneral memories than neglected and non-maltreated children. Surprisingly, there was no difference between the neglected and the non-maltreated children in their use of overgeneral memories.

Concerning the effects of depression on overgeneral memories, the authors wanted to know if depression mediated the association between abuse and overgeneral memories. That is, the authors hypothesized that abuse does not necessarily lead to overgeneral memories, but that instead abuse leads to depression, and it is depression that leads to overgeneral memories. However, the authors found that this was not the case. Although abuse predicted depressive symptoms, and depressive symptoms predicted overgeneral memories, the association between abuse and overgeneral memories was not explained by the depression.

So what does this all mean?

This is the first study that linked abuse with overgeneral memories using children with a documented history of abuse (instead of self-report of abuse history). This finding was unique to abuse and not to neglect, suggesting that it is the experience of acute trauma, rather than chronic adverse events, that leads to difficulties recalling specific autobiographical memories. The results also show that these overgeneral memories are not explained by depression. Thus, it is possible that this memory tendency reflects a strategy to avoid specific memories. However, this implies an active process, in that specific memories are actively avoided (or at least were actively avoided at one time and then this tendency became a pattern). But it is also possible that this tendency reflects structural memory deficits created by the abuse. For example, abuse may have damaged, via exposure to acute levels of stress hormones, the memory mechanisms that facilitate recall of specific events. Under this possibility, overgeneral memories are not necessarily a strategy developed after the abuse, but instead a direct structural consequence of the abuse. We just don’t know this answer yet.

But what about the use of overgeneral memories and depression?

Although the authors found that depression did not fully explain the association between abuse and these memories, depression was still related to overgeneral memories. Kids with higher levels of depressive symptoms also showed higher levels of overgeneral memories. Yet the question of “causality” still remains. If overgeneral memories play an active role in the maintenance of depression, then therapy interventions that target this memory strategy may be effective in the treatment of depression.

So is there a reason to be concerned if you hear your kid using overgeneral memories? Not likely. These types of memories are commonly used by adults and kids. It is the overuse of these memories, especially in the context of limited recall of specific events, that has more clinical significance.

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9 Responses to Abused children and overgeneral memories: Could they lead to depression?

  1. Anonymous says:

    I wonder if those that have had a traumatic childhood, not just those who had abusive parents, would also have over-generalized autobiographical memory. I had a traumatic childhood but not particularly abusive parents, and at age 25 I struggle with trying to piece together the events of my life, I tend to have general ideas about what I have experienced rather than specific memories.

    • Cindy says:

      I had a physical, sexual and mental abused childhood. I remember pieces and they are terrifying. Im so thankful I cannot remember all of it

  2. PennyBright says:

    You just made my bookmarks — everytime I click-thru to you from Scienceblogs, I read something that is deeply meaningful and helpful to me in understanding my depression, and how it is related to the events of my childhood. Thank you.

    Having grown up in an abusive home, I know that I personally actively avoid talking about or thinking about my childhood except in the most general terms. When everything you remember is painful, you try not to remember it.

    One of the hardest aspects of my therapy has been trying to deal with the specifics of events — it’s nice to learn that this is not just a case of “me being weird”, but some sort of natural aspect of my situation.

  3. Thank you all for your comments.

    @anonymous, I think you are correct in that non-abuse trauma theoretically should be associated with an increase in overgeneral memories. Both explanations I discussed could still apply (a response to stress hormones, or a strategy to avoid painful memories). Hopefully this research is being conducted.

    @Penny, thank you for your kind note. I’m very glad that this blog is useful. As you know the blog is relatively new, so I hope it will get even better with time as we increase our library of reviews.

    Thanks again! Nestor.

  4. In a comment on Child-Psych's facebook page someone mentioned that she found compelling "that it could be acute levels of stress hormones resulting from abuse that lead to memory dysfunction….as opposed to the "coping mechanism" assumption."

    I discussed the possibility that this memory pattern may be due to acute exposure to stress hormones because there is a long history of research linking stress hormones to memory impairments. Some of these studies have shown that the recall of autobiographical memories is affected by exposure to acute levels of stress hormones. See for example

    Buss, C., Wolf, O. T., Witt, J., & Hellhammer, D. H. (2004). Autobiographic memory impairment following acute cortisol administration. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 29(8), 1093-1096.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Couldn’t this also point to the need to those with depression and the need for tangible things that are reliable? Those who deal daily with depression often use daily repetition for coping. It could be those who experience trama are also using this coping mechanism. It is a way to revert to what is reliable and brings comfort. It could be in the need to keep the fragile status from further stress, the brain pulls to what does not need deep mental concentration which the brain could see as mental fatigue. So the overgeneralized memories are a coping mechanism from fatigue and one for comfort. … or not :)

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hum… maybe the mental fatigue the brain recognizes is from the stress hormones you mentioned. That in the recognition of high stress levels it reverts to what is less mental concentrated output.

  7. That is an interesting thought Julie. Most researchers that study the effects of corticoids on memory usually believe that the mechanism of action is via damage to key areas of the hippocampus. There is an extensive animal litterature showing that exposure to corticoids leads to cell death in the hippocampus and subsequent memory impairment. Although, your idea is still possible and intriguing. Thanks. Nestor.

  8. Cindy says:

    Im 39 years old
    When I was 5 my mom and her husband. Kidnapped me from my dad. Physical abuse started immediately. My mom would hold me down so he could beat me. I also peed the bed every night mom would rub my face in it, then I o had to sit on there bed all day until he got home and he would wet his leather belt so it was more painful, she would hold me down and let him beat me as I was completely naked. On
    my bare skin
    By 8 he started a New punishment with the beating on my bare knees, kneeling im concrete with my nose on the wall
    knees 6 – 8 inches from wall and if I rested my forehead he came behind me kicked me in the back with his steel toed work boots
    shortly after the. Sexual abuse started 8yrs old. By 10 a 45 year old grown man had fully penetrated me and I started my period. My mom walked in im on him once and turned around like she seen nothing. Can any body help me understand how a mother does that to her own child?

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