Autobiographical Memories and PTSD

  • Elizabeth S. Lapidow
  • Adam D. BrownEmail author
Reference work entry


PTSD has long been associated with alterations in autobiographical memory. In addition to those memory-related symptoms of PTSD found in the diagnostic criteria, such as intrusive memories and flashbacks, researchers have found that individuals with PTSD tend to have difficulty recalling specific moments from their past, a phenomenon referred to as overgeneralized autobiographical memory. Since the original findings were presented two and half decades ago, there now exists a considerable body of work examining the mechanisms underlying overgeneralization. This chapter summarizes the findings on overgeneral memory to date, including the paradigms employed to study this phenomenon, as well as the theories, research outcomes, and implications for vulnerability to and recovery from traumatic stress.


Posttraumatic stress disorder Autobiographical memory Overgeneralized autobiographical memory Future thinking Cognition 

List of Abbreviations


Autobiographical Memory Test


Acute Stress Disorder


Memory Specificity Training


Overgeneralized Autobiographical Memory


Post-traumatic Stress Disorder




  1. Abdollahi M, Moradi A, Hasani J, et al. Investigating the relationships between autobiographical remembering, the self and posttraumatic stress disorder in individuals with HIV. Memory. 2012;20:872–81.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 1994.Google Scholar
  3. Blix I, Brennen T. Mental time travel after trauma: the specificity and temporal distribution of autobiographical memories and future-directed thoughts. Memory. 2011;19:956–67.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Boelen P, Huntjens R, van Deursen D, et al. Autobiographical memory specificity and symptoms of complicated grief, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder following loss. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2010;41:331–7.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Brown A, Root J, Romano T. Overgeneralized autobiographical memory and future thinking in combat veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2013;44:129–34.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Brown A, Addis D, Romano T, et al. Episodic and semantic components of autobiographical memories and imagined future events in post-traumatic stress disorder. Memory. 2014;22:595–604.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Bryant R, Sutherland K, Guthrie R. Impaired specific autobiographical memory as a risk factor for posttraumatic stress after trauma. J Abnorm Psychol. 2007;116:837–41.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Bunnell S, Greenhoot A. When and why does abuse predict reduced autobiographical memory specificity? Memory. 2012;20:121–37.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Conway M, Pleydell-Pearce C. The construction of autobiographical memories in the self-memory system. Psychol Rev. 2000;107:261–88.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Crane C, Heron J, Gunnell D, et al. Childhood traumatic events and adolescent overgeneral autobiographical memory: findings in a U.K. cohort. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2014;45:330–8.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  11. de Decker A, Hermans D, Raes F, et al. Autobiographical memory specificity and trauma in inpatient adolescents. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol. 2003;32:22–31.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Ehlers A, Clark D. A cognitive model of posttraumatic stress disorder. Behav Res Ther. 2000;38:319–45.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Graham B, Herlihy J, Brewin C. Overgeneral memory in asylum seekers and refugees. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2014;45:375–80.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Harvey A, Bryant R, Dang S, et al. Autobiographical memory in acute stress disorder. J Consult Clin Psychol. 1998;66:500–6.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Humphries C, Jobson L. Short report: influence of culture and trauma history on autobiographical memory specificity. Memory. 2012;20:915–22.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Jelinek L, Randjbar S, Seifert D, et al. The organization of autobiographical and nonautobiographical memory in posttraumatic stress disorder. J Abnorm Psychol. 2009;118:288–98.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Kangas M, Henry J, Bryant R. A prospective study of autobiographical memory and posttraumatic stress disorder following cancer. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2005;73:293–9.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Kleim B, Ehlers A. Reduced autobiographical memory specificity predicts depression and posttraumatic stress disorder after recent trauma. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2008;76:231–42.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  19. Kleim B, Wallott F, Ehlers A. Are trauma memories disjointed from other autobiographical memories in posttraumatic stress disorder? An experimental investigation. Behav Cogn Psychother. 2008;36:221–34.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  20. Kleim B, Griffith J, Gäbler I, et al. The impact of imprisonment on overgeneral autobiographical memory in former political prisoners. J Trauma Stress. 2013;26:626–30.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Kleim B, Graham B, Fihosy S, et al. Reduced specificity in episodic future thinking in posttraumatic stress disorder. Clin Psychol Sci. 2014;2:165–73.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  22. Kuyken W, Brewin C. Autobiographical memory functioning in depression and reports of early abuse. J Abnorm Psychol. 1995;104:585–91.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. McNally R, Litz B, Prassas A, et al. Emotional priming of autobiographical memory in posttraumatic stress disorder. Cogn Emot. 1994;8:351–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. McNally R, Lasko N, Macklin M, et al. Autobiographical memory disturbance in combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder. Behav Res Ther. 1995;33:619–30.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Moore S, Zoellner L. Overgeneral autobiographical memory and traumatic events: an evaluative review. Psychol Bull. 2007;133:419–37.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  26. Moradi A, Abdi A, Fathi-Ashtiani A, et al. Overgeneral autobiographical memory recollection in Iranian combat veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. Behav Res Ther. 2012;50:435–41.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Moradi A, Miraghaei M, Parhon H, et al. Posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, executive functioning, and autobiographical remembering in individuals with HIV and in carers of those with HIV in Iran. AIDS Care. 2013;25:281–8.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Moradi A, Moshirpanahi S, Parhon H, et al. A pilot randomized controlled trial investigating the efficacy of MEmory Specificity Training in improving symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. Behav Res Ther. 2014;56:68–74.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Neshat-Doost H, Dalgleish T, Yule W, et al. Enhancing autobiographical memory specificity through cognitive training: an intervention for depression translated from basic science. Clin Psychol Sci. 2013;1:84–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Neshat-Doost H, Yule W, Kalantari M. Reduced autobiographical memory specificity in bereaved Afghan adolescents. Memory. 2014;22:700–9.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Neufeind J, Dritschel B, Astell A, et al. The effects of thought suppression on autobiographical memory recall. Behav Res Ther. 2009;47:275–84.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Prigerson H, Horowitz M, Jacobs S, et al. Prolonged grief disorder: psychometric validation of criteria proposed for DSM-V and ICD-11. PLoS Med. 2009;6, e1000121.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  33. Raes F, Williams J, Hermans D. Reducing cognitive vulnerability to depression: a preliminary investigation of MEmory Specificity Training in inpatients with depressive symptomatology. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2009;40:24–38.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Ratcliffe M, Ruddell M, Smith B. What is a “sense of foreshortened future?” A phenomenological study of trauma, trust, and time. Front Psychol. 2014;5:1026.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  35. Rubin D. Autobiographical memory. New York: Cambridge University Press; 1986.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Schacter D, Addis D. The cognitive neuroscience of constructive memory: remembering the past and imagining the future. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2007;362:773–86.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  37. Schacter D, Addis D, Hassabis D, et al. The future of memory: remembering, imagining, and the brain. Neuron. 2012;76:677–94.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Schönfeld S, Ehlers A. Overgeneral memory extends to pictorial retrieval cues and correlates with cognitive features in posttraumatic stress disorder. Emotion. 2006;6:611–21.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Schönfeld S, Ehlers A, Böllinghaus I, et al. Overgeneral memory and suppression of trauma memories in posttraumatic stress disorder. Memory. 2007;15:339–52.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. St Jacques P, Botzung A, Miles A, et al. Functional neuroimaging of emotionally intense autobiographical memories in post-traumatic stress disorder. J Psychiatr Res. 2011;45:630–7.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  41. Sumner J. The mechanisms underlying overgeneral autobiographical memory: an evaluative review of evidence for the CaR-FA-X model. Clin Psychol Rev. 2012;32:34–48.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  42. Sumner J, Griffith J, Mineka S. Overgeneral autobiographical memory as a predictor of the course of depression: a meta-analysis. Behav Res Ther. 2010;48:614–25.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  43. Sutherland K, Bryant R. Autobiographical memory in posttraumatic stress disorder before and after treatment. Behav Res Ther. 2007;45:2915–23.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Sutherland K, Bryant R. Autobiographical memory and the self-memory system in posttraumatic stress disorder. J Anxiety Disord. 2008a;22:555–60.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Sutherland K, Bryant R. Social problem solving and autobiographical memory in posttraumatic stress disorder. Behav Res Ther. 2008b;46:154–61.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Tulving E. Memory and consciousness. Can Psychol. 1985;26:1–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Ursano R, Li H, Zhang L, et al. Models of PTSD and traumatic stress: the importance of research “from bedside to bench to bedside”. Prog Brain Res. 2007;167:203–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. van Vreeswijk M, de Wild E. Autobiographical memory specificity, psychopathology, depressed mood, and the use of the Autobiographical Memory Test: a meta analysis. Behav Res Ther. 2004;42:731–43.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. Wang Q. Once upon a time: explaining cultural differences in episodic specificity. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2009;3:413–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Wessel I, Meeren M, Peeters F, et al. Correlates of autobiographical memory specificity: the role of depression, anxiety and childhood trauma. Behav Res Ther. 2001;39:409–21.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  51. Williams J. Depression and the specificity of autobiographical memory. In: Rubin D, editor. Remembering our past: studies in autobiographical memory. New York: Cambridge University Press; 1996. p. 244–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Williams J, Broadbent K. Autobiographical memory in suicide attempters. J Abnorm Psychol. 1986;95:144–9.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  53. Williams J, Barnhofer T, Crane C, et al. Autobiographical memory specificity and emotional disorder. Psychol Bull. 2007;133:122–48.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  54. Wingenfeld K, Driessen M, Terfehr K, et al. Cortisol has enhancing, rather than impairing effects on memory retrieval in PTSD. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2012;37:1048–56.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Molecular and Behavioral NeuroscienceRutgers UniversityNewarkUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologySarah Lawrence CollegeBronxvilleUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychiatryNew York University School of MedicineNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations