Memory, Aging and the Brain: A Festschrift in Honour of Lars-Göran Nilsson

By Lars Bäckman; Lars Nyberg | Go to book overview

12
Post-traumatic fear memories:
Analysing a case study of a
sexual assault

Arne Öhman

Christianson and Nilsson (1989) described a case of hysterical amnesia in a woman (called CM) who was assaulted and raped when she was out jogging. This highly traumatic event produced an almost complete retrograde amnesia up to the moment in time when she was found by a fellow jogger. When accompanied to the scene of the assault by a police officer four weeks after the assault, the victim “felt very uncomfortable at specific places, but had no recollection of the traumatic evening except that the word ‘bricks’ crossed her mind” (Christianson & Nilsson, 1989, p. 291). Later they came to a small path covered with crumbled bricks that ran parallel to the running path. When encountering this path, CM “showed an intense emotional stress, and claimed that she associated the unpleasant feelings with the pieces of bricks on the track that she was walking on. She strongly felt that something must have happened at this specific place, although she did not know for certain at this point in time that she had been raped. From the confession by the rapist a few days earlier the policeman knew, however, that this was the place where he had assaulted her and from which she had been forced out onto the small meadow where the actual rape took place” (Christianson & Nilsson, 1989, p. 291). It was only several weeks later, when she was out jogging for the first time after the assault, at a completely different track but one that also was covered by crushed bricks, that images of the assault started to come back to her and she eventually was able to reconstruct the whole episode.

This vignette dramatically demonstrates a dissociation between two types of memories of the same event. There were no accessible traces of the rape and the associated events in CM’s conscious memory, yet her emotional responses suggested that her brain and body had recorded the trauma. In this chapter I shall discuss an aspect of this case that was barely touched upon by Christianson and Nilsson (1989), who focused their discussion on its most conspicuous part, the amnesia that was provoked by the trauma. I shall argue that her relatively intact emotional responses in the compete absence of episodic memory is a result of Pavlovian fear conditioning – the operation of a subcortical network for defensive emotional learning that is evolutionarily preserved and independent of conscious cognitive learning. It is this system

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