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Influence of Traumatic Experiences on Memory

Author: Alina Yang

Editors: Jaylen Peng, Viola Chen

Artist: Jade Li

While the journeys of all individuals through life unfold in unique circumstances that sculpt the way they see and think in distinct ways, trauma binds us all in complex ways – it ingrains memories that fabricate the mosaic of our narrative to bring common ground in the intricacies of our recollections. It is a popular misconception that those with PTSD or trauma may be able to recall traumatic events as they happen perfectly, but in reality, trauma leads to fragmented and distorted memories, with details often being altered, incomplete, or even completely forgotten. The relationship between trauma and memory is a complex and nuanced one,  subjective to each individual. 

It is known that memories fade over time. However, traumatic experiences may affect the cognition of memory inversely. As the mind grapples with the lasting impacts of distressing events, the memories may be intensified. This is called memory amplification. Memory amplification is a type of distortion where victims often remember their traumatizing experience at a disproportionately elevated level. Due to this, they often have “re-experiencing” symptoms associated with the intrusive and persistent nature of PTSD.  The processing of emotions, particularly fear and anxiety, is associated with the brain's amygdala region. It is anterior to the hippocampus, in the medial temporal lobe region. During traumatic events, various survival mechanisms are at play.  For one, the amygdala may become overactivated, triggering the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, in the hypothalamus. This may impact the encoding and retrieval of memories, potentially amplifying the memory's emotional aspect. The vividness of these overwhelming flashbacks can be tormenting, but they provide a sense of control compared to the complete inability to recollect information regarding a traumatic experience. 

Another form of memory distortion is dissociative amnesia, often referred to as “memory gaps” or “fragmentation”. Dissociative amnesia is when one becomes partially or completely unable to recall important personal information. Unlike dementia, other neurological disorders, physical injuries (organic amnesia), or simply forgetting, it is a coping mechanism utilized to repress distressing situations.  Like memory amplification, the hippocampus and amygdala activation work similarly to encode autobiographical memory. With dissociative amnesia, however, the brain shuts down episodic memory, the ability to learn and store information, thus causing fragmentation or memory gaps.  There are various forms of dissociative amnesia:

  •  Selective Memory: Individuals with dissociative amnesia may often forget specific events, periods, or even aspects of their own identity. This is what is often associated with “memory gaps.” 

  • Systemized: Victims may forget specific topics, such as people or places. 

  • Localized Amnesia: This memory loss affects a limited, short period in the person’s life, often centered around a traumatic event. It is confined to a specific set of circumstances by which the person may still have their memories before or after the localized amnesia period. 

  • Generalized Amnesia: This is the contrary of localized amnesia. It is a broader memory loss that affects a long period of time in a person’s life – months or years may be forgotten. Generalized amnesia, however, also impacts memories of the individual’s entire life. 

Despite the differences between these forms of dissociative amnesia, they can all be categorized as “retrograde amnesia” – the inability to recall events or information from a specific time. Anterograde amnesia, another subdivision of dissociative amnesia, pertains to difficulty retaining memory after a specific traumatic event. 

The multifaceted nature of trauma is cruel and subjective. It does not affect everyone in the same way, and thus, various coping mechanisms, like the different divisions of dissociative amnesia or memory amplification, are formed. It impairs explicit memory, the conscious recollection of facts and events, and subjugates victims to enhanced implicit memory, the unconscious retention of experiences that affect behavioral and cognitive processes. The loss of control and complete disorientation that victims may feel from re-experiencing trauma is a haunting shadow of their past. This shadow knows not the boundaries of time, resurfacing in unexpected ways. It is an unpredictable presence that uninvitingly whispers unwelcomed recollections. Like a shapeshifter, it morphs into unbearable anxiety and depression. And, like a master of disguise, camouflages into the victim’s daily life. Peter A. Levine states, “Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.” He tells us that despite its debilitating effects, trauma may not and must not dictate the life of individuals; with resilience and the courage to seek help, one can thrive despite being thrown in the ugly face of traumatic experiences. 

 

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