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.
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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