Disorders of Emotional Memory
Each perspective on emotional memory contributes to our overall understanding, and each approach can be informed by the others. But there is still one more perspective we need to consider: Throughout psychology, we must understand the ways that people are alike, and also the ways they differ. Some of the differences among people can be understood as vari-ations within the range considered healthy or “normal”; these include differences in per-sonality, aptitudes, beliefs, and more. But some differences among people—including their responses to emotional events—take us outside of the range that we can call “healthy.”
Consider, for example, people who have witnessed a violent car crash. As we have discussed, various mechanisms promote memory for this sort of emotional episode. But, for some people, these mechanisms seem too effective. They seem to end up with “too much memory” of the crash, and they cannot get the disturbing scene out of their heads.
Similar descriptions apply to a soldier who has been through a horrible battle, or a woman who has been raped. In these cases, it is important that there be some memory. The soldier often needs to report to his officer what happened, so that the next step in the battle can be planned (Figure P.12). The woman needs to remember her ordeal so that she can give evidence to the police that will lead to the prosecu-tion of the rapist. Even so, the soldier and the rape victim eventually need to move on with their lives, and put the horrors of their experiences behind them. But this may not be possible, because the painful memory may stay with them more than they would wish.
In such cases, the neural and cognitive mechanisms that support emotional remembering seem to produce a cruel enhancement of memory. This horrific mem-ory can, in turn, contribute to the condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Be aware, though, that not all soldiers, and not all rape victims, develop PTSD—and we need to ask why this is. Part of the explanation lies in biology: Some people seem genetically at greater risk for this disorder, plausibly because their nerv-ous systems are especially reactive to whatever stressful events they encounter. Cognitive mechanisms are also relevant, because the emergence of PTSD depends to some extent on a person’s beliefs and expectations—in particular, what the person feared would happen at a moment of crisis, rather than what actually happened.Social mechanisms are also pertinent; studies indicate that telling others about the trauma, or even just writing about the trauma in a diary, can help defuse the emo-tional response to the trauma and thus make PTSD less likely (e.g., Pennebaker, 2004).
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