Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Reappearance Hypothesis Revisited: Recurrent Involuntary Memories after Traumatic Events and in Everyday Life

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Reappearance Hypothesis Revisited: Recurrent Involuntary Memories after Traumatic Events and in Everyday Life

Article excerpt

Recurrent involuntary memories are autobiographical memories that come to mind with no preceding retrieval attempt and that are subjectively experienced as being repetitive. Clinically, they are classified as a symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder. The present work is the first to systematically examine recurrent involuntary memories outside clinical settings. Study 1 examines recurrent involuntary memories among survivors of the tsunami catastrophe in Southeast Asia in 2004. Study 2 examines recurrent involuntary memories in a large general population. Study 3 examines whether the contents of recurrent involuntary memories recorded in a diary study are duplicates of, or differ from, one another. We show that recurrent involuntary memories are not limited to clinical populations or to emotionally negative experiences; that they typically do not come to mind in a fixed and unchangeable form; and that they show the same pattern regarding accessibility as do autobiographical memories in general. We argue that recurrent involuntary memories after traumas and in everyday life can be explained in terms of general and well-established mechanisms of autobiographical memory.

Within the last 10 years, an increasing number of studies have examined characteristics of involuntary autobiographical memories-that is, memories of personal experiences that come to mind with no preceding retrieval attempts (e.g., Ball & Little, 2006; Berntsen, 1996,2001; Berntsen & Hall, 2004; Berntsen & Rubin, 2002; Kvavilashvili & Mandler, 2004; Mace, 2007). Involuntary autobiographical memories in everyday life are more often about positive than negative events (e.g., Berntsen, 1996; Berntsen & Hall, 2004; Berntsen & Rubin, 2002), as is the case for autobiographical memory in general (e.g., Thompson, Skowronski, Larsen, & Betz, 1996; Walker, Skowronski, & Thompson, 2003). However, recurrent involuntary memories (i.e., involuntary autobiographical memories that people subjectively experience as being repetitive) have received almost no attention outside of clinical settings. Clinically, such memories are observed among people suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) definition of this disorder lists a number of reexperiencing symptoms, including "recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections" and "recurrent distressing dreams" of the traumatic event (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Due to the lack of research in nonclinical populations, we have no data clarifying whether recurrent involuntary memories of autobiographical events are, in fact, tied to traumatic and/or negative emotional stress as argued in theories based on clinical observations (e.g., Ehlers, Hackmann, & Michael, 2004; Horowitz, 1992).

Furthermore, a brief reflection on the very notion of recurrent memories should raise a number of questions. Exactly what is meant by the idea that a memory is recurrent? Does it mean that each recurrent memory is an exact copy of a previous memory of the same event or scene? This would seem to clash with the idea that memory is reconstructive (e.g., Bartlett, 1932). The debate over whether the act of remembering is a constructive creation of something new or an associative reactivation of stored and unchanging information has a long history in psychology. James (1890) argued strongly against the empiricist position that sensory impressions are stored in fixed forms and later reactivated through associations: "No state once gone can recur and be identical with what it was before" (p. 230). A similar position was taken by Bartlett and later by Neisser (1967), who found the idea of unchanging reactivations of the same stored material "so misguided-that it deserves a special name" (p. 281). To this end, he chose the term reappearance hypothesis (p. 281), which implies that "the same memory image, or other cognitive unit, can disappear and reappear over and over again" (p. …

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