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The Journal of Psychology, 2008, 142(5), 449–469

Copyright © 2008 Heldref Publications

Similarities and Differences Between


Traumatic and Emotional Memories:
Review and Directions for Future Research
IGOR SOTGIU
University of Turin

CHRISTIAN MORMONT
University of Liège

ABSTRACT. The authors review theory and empirical research on the characteristics
of memories for traumatic versus emotional events, with the goal of bringing together
the cognitive and clinical perspectives on this issue. They consider the most important
approaches to the study of traumatic and emotional memory and summarize the results
of recent studies that have compared autobiographical recollections of traumatic and
nontraumatic emotional experiences (positive and negative), either in nonclinical or
clinical samples. Overall, findings from the current empirical literature are inconsistent.
Although some researchers have found that traumatic memories are retrieved differently
than are emotional memories, others have demonstrated that the phenomenological char-
acteristics of these memory types are highly similar. The authors discuss methodological
issues that could help researchers to interpret the inconsistencies found in the empirical
findings. Last, they suggest possible directions for future research that may advance
researchers’ knowledge of memory, trauma, and emotion.
Keywords: autobiographical memory, emotional experiences, psychopathology, traumatic
experiences

OVER THE PAST 2 DECADES, a growing body of research on memory for trau-
matic and emotional events has emerged (for reviews, see Appelbaum, Uyehara,
& Elin, 1997; Butler & Spiegel, 1997; Christianson, 1992a, 1992b; McGaugh,
2003; McNally, 2003; Reisberg & Hertel, 2004; Schooler & Eich, 2000; Uttl,
Ohta, & Siegenthaler, 2006). The study of this topic has progressively attracted
the attention of scholars from a broad array of disciplines, including cognitive
psychology, clinical psychology, forensic psychology, psychiatry, and neurosci-
ence. Researchers working in these fields have contributed to the understanding

Address correspondence to Igor Sotgiu, University of Turin, Department of Psychology,


Via Verdi 10, Torino, 10124, Italy; sotgiu@psych.unito.it (e-mail).

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450 The Journal of Psychology

of how people remember life experiences that are relevant for their well-being
and survival. Although a less frequent occurrence, researchers have also offered
suggestions on how to apply scientific knowledge on human memory to societal
problems, with the goal of supporting clinicians and other professionals interact-
ing with victims of traumatic events (Berliner & Briere, 1999; Koss, Tromp, &
Tharan, 1995; Loftus, 2003; van der Kolk, McFarlane, & van der Hart, 1996).
One of the most important challenges for memory and emotion researchers
is promoting integration between the various disciplines involved in the field of
trauma (cf. DePrince & Freyd, 2001; van der Kolk, Hopper, & Osterman, 2001).
Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that with few exceptions (see Butler &
Spiegel, 1997; Christianson, 1992b), literature reviews on traumatic and emo-
tional memory have usually taken into consideration studies conducted within
very focused approaches, either clinical or cognitive. Also, relevant research in
these areas has been disjointed. Studies conducted from a clinical perspective
have focused on memories of traumatized individuals who experienced highly
stressful or violent events; on the contrary, studies conducted from a cognitive
perspective have focused on memories for artificial or simulated events that were
emotionally arousing but not traumatic. Comparative analyses and syntheses of
the similarities and differences between traumatic and emotional memories are
thus lacking in the current literature.
In the present article, we aimed to review theoretical and empirical research
on characteristics of memories for traumatic versus emotional events. Our effort
was to draw together cognitive and clinical perspectives and point out the com-
plexity of the issue under study. In doing so, we paid special attention to recent
research in emotion psychology. The present article consists of five main sec-
tions. First, we describe the core defining features of traumatic and emotional
events, giving examples of these two types of occurrences and emphasizing
their main differences and similarities. Second, we consider the most important
empirical and theoretical approaches to traumatic and emotional memory, identi-
fying their possible contribution to the understanding of the topic of this review.
Third, we review recent real-life studies that have compared autobiographical
recollections of traumatic and emotional experiences in either nonclinical or
clinical samples. Fourth, we discuss some methodological issues that could help
researchers to interpret the inconsistencies found in the empirical findings. Last,
we highlight some critical points in the current literature, indicating possible
directions for future research that may advance researchers’ knowledge of trau-
matic and emotional memories.

Traumatic Versus Emotional Events

Distinguishing traumatic events from emotional events may be difficult


because all traumatic events have an emotional component. However, not all
emotional events may be classified as traumatic. In this section, we discuss
Sotgiu & Mormont 451

the characteristics of traumatic events as opposed to the latter kind of emo-


tional event. Therefore, henceforth we use the term emotional events to refer to
nontraumatic emotional events.
Both traumatic and emotional events are memorable occurrences that occupy
an important place in one’s autobiographical memory. However, they appear to be
different in several ways. Traumatic events are highly stressful and consequential
events in which the person feels overwhelmed by extreme negative emotions. There
is debate in the literature about the core attributes of traumatic events. According to
the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric
Association, 1994), a traumatic event can be defined as a situation in which “the
person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that
involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical
integrity of self or others” (p. 427). However, it is arguable that events that do not
involve a threat to the physical safety of the person (e.g., sexual betrayal) may also
be perceived as traumatic experiences. Prevalence studies conducted in the general
population have found that a high proportion of people report having been exposed
to some form of traumatic event in their lifetime (Breslau et al., 1998; Elliott,
1997; Frans, Rimmö, Åberg, & Fredrikson, 2005; Norris, 1992; Rosenman, 2002;
Tourigny, Gagné, Joly, & Chartrand, 2006). The most common traumatic events
include physical aggression, sexual assault, robbery, the unexpected death of a
loved one, severe automobile accident, and natural and manmade disaster (e.g.,
flood, earthquake, hurricane, tornado, fire, industrial accident, war). A large num-
ber of studies have indicated that victims of these dramatic events may manifest
symptoms of acute and chronic stress, including anxiety, depression, posttraumatic
stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and somatic disturbances (cf. Fullerton
& Ursano, 1997; Rubonis & Bickman, 1991; Shalev, Yehuda, & McFarlane, 2000;
Stewart, 1996; van der Kolk, McFarlane, & Weisaeth, 1996). The severity of psy-
chological and health consequences of traumatic events is associated with a wide
range of personal and social factors. Critical risk factors include the victims’ degree
of exposure to the event, peritraumatic psychological reactions, personal and fam-
ily psychiatric history, social support, and demographic characteristics (Brewin,
Andrews, & Valentine, 2000; Galea, Nandi, & Vlahov, 2005; Ozer, Best, Lipsey,
& Weiss, 2003).
Like traumatic events, emotional events are situations that are relevant to a
person’s well-being. However, they are not as overwhelming and stressful as trau-
matic events, and in many cases they are not stressful at all. Emotional events may
vary according to their valence (positive vs. negative) and according to the strength
of subjective feelings and physical reactions that they elicit in a person. Research
on everyday emotional experiences (Boucher, 1983; Brandstätter & Eliasz, 2001;
Galati et al., 2005; Oatley & Duncan, 1994; Scherer & Tannenbaum, 1986; Scher-
er, Wallbott, & Summerfield, 1986) has shown that the most frequently occurring
emotional events are generally associated with relationships with other people
(e.g., partner, family, friends), work-related situations, attainment of personal
452 The Journal of Psychology

goals, and life changes. Positive emotional events may include the birth of a child,
a romantic kiss, receiving a present, attending a concert, or getting a job. Negative
emotional events encompass critical situations, such as arguing with a close friend,
learning that a family member is ill, being verbally threatened, or failing an exam.
Emotionally charged events elicit specific emotional states, including joy, fear, sad-
ness, anger, surprise, shame, and embarrassment. However, how often these emo-
tions actually occur in everyday life is a matter of considerable debate (Parkinson,
2004; Scherer, 2004; Scherer, Wranik, Sangsue, Tran, & Scherer, 2004; Wilhelm,
Schoebi, & Perrez, 2004).
Another distinctive feature of emotional events concerns their duration.
Unlike traumatic events, emotional episodes typically result in intense but short-
lived experiences, lasting for minutes or seconds (Ekman, 1999; Watson & Clark,
1994). As a consequence, their impact on an individual’s health and psychological
well-being (Finkenauer & Rimé, 1998; Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002; Futterman,
Kemeny, Shapiro, Polonsky, & Fahey, 1992; Tugade, Fredrickson, & Feldman
Barrett, 2004) is less intense and prolonged than that of traumatic events.

Are Traumatic and Emotional Memories Similar or Different?


Empirical Approaches and Theoretical Issues

Personally experienced events, either traumatic or emotional, are coded in


mental representations that are stored in the long-term memory. Hence, they
might be subject to reconstructive processes that can affect the retrieval of
originally encoded information. Because traumatic and emotional events are
somewhat different, one might wonder if long-term recollections of these events
are also different and, if so, how. Unfortunately, memory researchers and clini-
cians have not framed the problem exactly in these terms. To better understand
the available literature for this issue, in the following section we briefly describe
the most common empirical approaches to the study of traumatic and emotional
memories. Then we consider some theoretical issues at the core of the recent
debate on traumatic memory and related to the focus of this review.

Field Versus Laboratory Studies

For many years, empirical research on characteristics of traumatic and emo-


tional memories has been conducted within two distinct approaches. The first
approach has focused on the memory of actual victims and witnesses of highly
stressful and traumatic events (e.g., homicides, shootings, robberies, assaults,
sexual abuses) and on the recollections of people who were first informed of
striking, newsworthy events, such as the assassination of President John F.
Kennedy or the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Typically, empiri-
cal findings derived from this approach were based on field studies, including
retrospective surveys, archival studies, and case studies of single individuals. In
Sotgiu & Mormont 453

the second approach, researchers investigated individuals’ memory for emotion-


ally arousing versus emotionally neutral stimuli using media such as word lists,
slides, pictures, or movie excerpts. This latter line of investigation encompasses
a number of studies that were conducted in laboratory settings where, due to
ethical reasons, researchers cannot reproduce traumatic events such as the ones
occurring in real life. Overall, both field and laboratory studies allow research-
ers to acquire a large quantity of data on issues including the relation between
memory performance and emotional stress, memory accuracy and vividness, the
amount of recall, memory for central versus peripheral details, and flashbulb
memories for significant private and public events (for reviews of the literature
on these topics, see Christianson, 1992b; Christianson & Engelberg, 1999; Reis-
berg & Heuer, 2004; Schooler & Eich, 2000).
Although researchers’ understanding of psychological mechanisms involved
in traumatic and emotional memory has improved, the two aforementioned
empirical approaches have been used to pursue parallel and rather distant ave-
nues. This has generated some difficulty in the memory literature. First, given the
marked differences between real-life traumatic events and emotional stimuli used
in the laboratory, findings concerning the effects of emotional stress or arousal
on memory are often contradictory. Second, whereas field studies focus on trau-
matized individuals, studies conducted in the laboratory typically take into con-
sideration samples of undergraduate students who were not exposed to stressful
or life-threatening events. The usefulness of comparing and generalizing results
obtained from such different populations is debatable. Last, several authors
(Butler & Spiegel, 1997; Freyd, 1998; van der Kolk & Fisler, 1995; Yuille & Cut-
shall, 1986) have questioned whether investigating traumatic memory by using
experimental methods and procedures is the proper approach for understanding
phenomena that happen outside the confines of the laboratory. As van der Kolk
and Fisler pointed out, “since trauma is an inescapably stressful event that over-
whelms people’s coping mechanisms, it is uncertain to what degree the results
of laboratory studies of ordinary events have relevance to the understanding of
traumatic memories” (p. 505). In a similar vein, Butler and Spiegel observed
that “laboratory events are . . . not personally relevant autobiographical events in
which subjects are active participants. Consequently, generalizing findings based
on laboratory events requires the assumption that the same basic processing char-
acteristics apply across differing situations” (p. II-20).

Debate About the Uniqueness of Traumatic Memories

In contrast with the aforementioned approaches to traumatic and emotional


memory, several researchers in recent years have attempted to expand the scope
of traditional perspectives on memory phenomena by speculating on the possible
differences and similarities between traumatic recollections and memories for
other life experiences. Typically, researchers working within this approach have
454 The Journal of Psychology

been concerned with the following relevant theoretical question: Is traumatic


memory special? (Porter & Birt, 2001; Read, 2001; Shobe & Kihlstrom, 1997).
Memory researchers from various disciplines have attempted to answer this
fundamental question, giving rise to an intense debate about the nature of trau-
matic memory. The contemporary debate encompasses two main perspectives on
the special status of traumatic recollections. The first perspective, the trauma–
memory argument (Kihlstrom, 1995, 2006; Shobe & Kihlstrom, 1997), maintains
that memories for traumatic experiences have unique characteristics that distin-
guish them from other kinds of memories. Thus, ordinary memory mechanisms
cannot account for the significant effects of traumatic events on memory. Many
clinicians working with traumatized patients have endorsed this position. Basing
his arguments on clinical findings and observations, Whitfield (1995) identified
crucial differences between traumatic and ordinary memories. According to
Whitfield, traumatic memories tend to be confused, fragmentary, involuntary,
and unconscious; also, they have a strong impact on identity and social function-
ing and are usually associated with specific psychopathological disturbances
such as PTSD. In contrast, ordinary memories have a clear structure, are easy to
remember, and tend to be voluntary and conscious. Unlike memories for traumat-
ic experiences, they do not interfere with the person’s normal functioning, and
they can be associated with both painful and joyful feelings. In a similar vein, van
der Kolk and colleagues (van der Kolk & Fisler 1995; van der Kolk et al., 2001)
postulated that traumatic memories are a special kind of memory because they
are experienced in the form of vivid fragments of images, sounds, smells, and
bodily sensations. Typically, fragmentary traumatic memories result in intrusive
and recurrent recollections, which take the form of disturbing somatic symptoms
and may prompt a variety of avoidance reactions. Other researchers have argued
that traumatic memories seem qualitatively different from other memories
because they are associated with special defense mechanisms, such as repression
and dissociation, that make them difficult to retrieve for extended periods of time
(Alpert, Brown, & Courtois, 1998; Briere & Conte, 1993; Chu, Frey, Ganzel, &
Matthews, 1999; Freyd, 1996; Terr, 1991, 1994).
Further theoretical approaches supporting the uniqueness of traumatic memories
come from the neurosciences. A number of researchers (LeDoux, 1993; Metcalfe &
Jacobs, 1996, 1998; Thomas, Laurance, Jacobs, & Nadel, 1995; van der Kolk, 1994)
agree that different aspects of memories for highly stressful events are processed by
and represented in different brain modules operating in parallel. Metcalfe and Jacobs
(1996, 1998) proposed a theory of memory under acute stress that considers two sys-
tems: a cool cognitive system and a hot emotional system. The cool system is based
in the hippocampus, and it plays a key role in the recording of the spatial–temporal
details of experience. The hot system is based in the amygdala, a structure involved
in the processing and storage of the emotional information of fearful and unpleasant
stimuli (Cahill, Babinsky, Markowitsch, & McGaugh, 1995; Davis & Whalen, 2001;
LaBar & Cabeza, 2006; McGaugh, 2004). Consistent with the model proposed by
Sotgiu & Mormont 455

Metcalfe and Jacobs, Nadel and Jacobs (1998) argued that traumatic stress has a
differential impact on the hot and cool systems. They reviewed empirical data from
animal and human studies indicating that moderate levels of stress enhance the
activity of the amygdala; in contrast, high levels of stress interfere with the normal
functioning of the hippocampus, obstructing the encoding of the contextual informa-
tion. On the basis of these premises, Nadel and Jacobs concluded that “when stress is
high enough to impair the function of the hippocampus, resulting memories will be
different from those formed under more ordinary circumstances” (p. 156).
Although the trauma–memory argument has gained wide consensus among
memory researchers, it has also been subject to severe criticism, and a second
perspective on the special status of traumatic memories is available. Research-
ers supporting this second perspective have suggested that traumatic and
nontraumatic events are encoded, processed, and retrieved in very similar ways.
After reviewing the clinical and experimental literature, Kihlstrom (2006; see
also Shobe & Kihlstrom, 1997) argued that the empirical evidence concerning
the unique influences of trauma on memory is highly ambiguous and does not
permit concluding that traumatic memories are truly different from other memo-
ries. Other criticism of the trauma–memory argument focuses on the mechanisms
that are supposed to account for the reported forgetting of traumatic events.
Hembrooke and Ceci (1995), for example, observed that experiences of child-
hood sexual abuse “are forgotten as a result of rather ordinary mechanisms and
developmental limitations which existed at the time of their occurrence” (p. 80).
Likewise, Ornstein, Ceci, and Loftus (1998) pointed out that “all events can be
partially or completely forgotten; no evidence exists to indicate that traumatic
events are impervious to such distortion. There is no scientifically compelling
basis for the creation of esoteric mechanisms such as repression to account for
these distortions. Indeed, this is the very stuff that normal memories are made of”
(p. 1002; italics in original). McNally (2003), Goodman et al. (2003), and Loftus
and Davis (2006) have proposed similar arguments.
Beyond the controversies surrounding the nature of mechanisms responsible
for traumatic amnesia, it is worth noting that the debate on the uniqueness of
traumatic memories has stimulated both cognitive and clinical researchers to
conduct empirical studies aimed at investigating the similarities and differences
between memories for traumatic events and memories for other types of events.
In particular, a handful of researchers have compared autobiographical recol-
lections of traumatic events with memories for personal experiences that were
emotionally charged but not traumatic. Because these studies look directly at the
issue at the heart of this article, we now turn our attention to their findings.

Comparisons of Traumatic and Emotional Memories: Empirical Findings

One of the first attempts at investigating traumatic versus emotional memo-


ries was the study by Tromp, Koss, Figueredo, and Tharan (1995; see also Koss,
456 The Journal of Psychology

Figueredo, Bell, Tharan, & Tromp, 1996). In the study by Tromp et al., a com-
munity sample of women employed in a medical center and at a university
completed a mailed questionnaire survey. The initial part of the questionnaire
permitted the researchers to distinguish participants according to their previous
experiences of sexual victimization (i.e., attempted and completed rape). Women
with a rape experience were asked to recall their most recent or most significant
experience of this kind. Women without such experience were asked to remem-
ber another intense life event, either positive or negative. All participants then
rated their memories on a set of items drawn from the Memory Characteristics
Questionnaire (MCQ; Suengas & Johnson, 1988). Results indicated that rape
memories, when compared to memories for other unpleasant experiences, were
less well-remembered, were less clear and vivid, involved less visual detail, con-
tained less meaningful order, and were talked and thought about less. However,
unpleasant memories and pleasant memories were fairly similar with respect to
many characteristics. In a subsequent study, Byrne, Hyman, and Scott (2001)
asked 113 female university undergraduates to give memory ratings for three
different life events, including the worst traumatic event they experienced (cho-
sen among those mentioned in the Traumatic Stress Survey; Gallagher, Riggs,
Byrne, & Weathers, 1998) and a very negative event and a very positive event
that occurred within 1 or 2 years of the traumatic event. Similar to Tromp et al.’s
study, Byrne et al. assessed participants’ recollections by means of a modified
version of the MCQ (Suengas & Johnson). Comparisons within participants
revealed that the nature of the recalled event affected participants’ memory for
sensory information and their ability to remember some aspects of the event
structure. Positive memories involved more visual and olfactory details than
did traumatic and negative memories. Participants better recalled things that
happened before the event in positive memories than in negative and traumatic
memories. Importantly, there were no differences with regard to other memory
characteristics, such as the overall memory of the event, vividness, emotional
responses, frequency of thoughts about the event, memory for spatial details, and
confidence in memory accuracy.
Other researchers excluded memories of negative or unpleasant emotional
events from their comparisons, paying special attention only to similarities and
differences between traumatic and positive emotional memories. Berntsen (2002;
Experiment 2) asked undergraduates to record as many details as possible for
memories of their most shocking and their happiest events. Results indicated
that, although memories of shocking events were older than were memories
of positive events, participants reported a higher proportion of central details
for the former relative to the latter. On the basis of these findings, Berntsen
argued against the widespread assumption that the core elements of traumatic
experiences are repressed or dissociated from consciousness. In another study
conducted on a small sample of college students, Butler and Wolfner (2000)
investigated childhood memories of significant traumatic and positive events
Sotgiu & Mormont 457

that participants experienced before the age of 13 years. The authors found that
the two memory types were highly similar with regard to many characteristics,
including ease of recall, vividness, quantity of details, intensity of past emo-
tional feelings, and frequency of event discussion. A few differences appeared in
secondary memory attributes. Participants were more likely to remember a spe-
cific outstanding detail from their traumatic memories than from their positive
memories; moreover, positive memories were associated with stronger present
emotions than were traumatic memories. Porter and Birt (2001) asked 306 uni-
versity undergraduates to provide a narrative description of their most traumatic
experience and their most positive emotional experience and answer several
questions relating to them. Consistent with findings from Byrne et al.’s (2001)
study, positive experiences were associated with more sensory details than were
traumatic experiences. However, traumatic memories contained a greater amount
of information, included more references to emotions experienced at the time of
the event, and were thought about more often. Apart from these differences, the
two types of memories proved to be similar along several key dimensions, such
as vividness, overall memory quality, and logical coherence of narratives.
More recently, Peace and Porter (2004) looked at the consistency of trau-
matic and positive emotional memories over time. The sample examined in this
study consisted of 52 adults who reported having experienced a traumatic event
within the previous year and having moderate to severe levels of traumatic stress
related to that event, according to the Impact of Event Scale (Horowitz, Wilner, &
Alvarez, 1979). Participants were asked to recall both their traumatic experience
and their most positive emotional experience in the past year in two interviews
separated by approximately 3 months. Overall, findings indicated that memories
for traumatic experiences were more consistent than were positive memories.
Vividness and overall memory quality associated with traumatic experiences did
not change significantly over time, whereas a decline was observed for positive
experiences. Porter and Peace (2007) found a similar trend in a follow-up study
of the same sample, investigating consistency of memory reports 3–5 years after
the first interviews.
With the exception of Tromp et al. (1995) and Peace and Porter’s (Peace
& Porter, 1994; Porter & Peace, 2007) studies, all aforementioned researchers
took into consideration samples of students who were not exposed to serious and
impairing traumatic events. To better understand the effects of traumatic memo-
ries on psychological functioning and mental health, some researchers have
focused their attention on samples of trauma victims with a psychopathological
profile. In particular, because it is commonly accepted that traumatic memories
play a key role in the development and maintenance of PTSD (Brewin, 2001;
Brewin, Dalgleish, & Joseph, 1996; Ehlers & Clark, 2000; Golier, Yehuda, &
Southwick, 1997; van der Kolk, 1994), researchers have recruited participants
meeting diagnostic criteria for this disorder or reporting a set of typical symp-
toms associated with it (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). In a widely
458 The Journal of Psychology

cited study conducted on a community sample of trauma victims, van der Kolk
and Fisler (1995) asked 46 adult individuals with PTSD to recall the traumatic
event that had had the most effect on their lives as well as a highly emotional but
nontraumatic experience. Characteristics of both memory types were assessed
by means of the Traumatic Memory Inventory, a 60-item structured interview
developed by the authors (for a description of this instrument, see van der Kolk
et al., 2001). In accordance with the trauma–memory argument, van der Kolk
and Fisler found that participants retrieved memories for traumatic experiences
differently from nontraumatic memories. All participants reported that they ini-
tially remembered the trauma as fragmentary, somatosensory flashback experi-
ences without a coherent narrative structure; 78% of the sample reported current
nightmares, whereas a lower proportion of participants claimed having suffered
partial or total amnesia for their trauma. Unlike traumatic memories, memories
for significant emotional experiences (e.g., wedding, vacation, graduation, birth
of a child) did not contain any sensory details; flashbacks, vivid dreams, and
periods of forgetting were also absent in this kind of memory.
Gray and Lombardo (2001) further explored the hypothesis that traumatic
experiences are retrieved as fragmented memories. The sample in their study
consisted of two groups of undergraduates: 29 with PTSD and 29 without
PTSD. All participants were asked to write narratives about a significant trauma,
a nontraumatic unpleasant experience, and a pleasant experience that they had
had within the past 5 years. In line with the study by Amir, Stafford, Freshman,
and Foa (1998), Gray and Lombardo assessed the complexity of narratives by
reading level indexes and taking into account the number of syllables per word
and number of words per sentence. Results showed that the degree of articula-
tion of the reported memories did not vary as a function of either narrative type
or participants’ PTSD. Thus, traumatic memories were not more fragmented
or disorganized than were either positive or negative nontraumatic emotional
memories.
A somewhat different picture of the characteristics of traumatic versus
emotional memories emerges when considering involuntary autobiographical
memories, or “memories arising spontaneously in everyday life” (Berntsen,
2001, p. 135; for an overview on this topic, see Mace, 2007). In a series of two
diary studies conducted among psychology students with and without PTSD,
Berntsen (2001; Studies 2 and 4) asked participants to record, during an open-
ended time period, a total of 50 involuntary memories about different types of
events: traumatic, nontraumatic (either pleasant or unpleasant), and extremely
positive or peak events. Overall, results indicated that traumatic memories, rela-
tive to nontraumatic memories, were rated as more vivid and emotionally pow-
erful. It was interesting that traumatic memories were reported more frequently
than were peak memories, thus indicating that extremely positive experiences
are less accessible for involuntary recall. However, in contrast with van der
Kolk and Fisler’s (1995) findings, memories for trauma and peak events were
Sotgiu & Mormont 459

highly similar with respect to diverse dimensions, such as importance, rehearsal,


and proportion of physical reactions triggered by the event. Last, although par-
ticipants with PTSD recorded flashbacks related to their traumatic experiences,
the total number of flashbacks referring to their nontraumatic memories (either
pleasant or unpleasant) was much higher than the number referring to their
trauma flashbacks. On the basis of these results, which oppose those obtained
by van der Kolk and Fisler, Berntsen (2001) concluded that “flashback is not a
trauma effect” (p. 145).

Methodological Issues

Altogether, the studies discussed in the previous section provide an in-depth


examination of the objective and phenomenological characteristics of traumatic
versus emotional memories as well as of the presumed mechanisms responsible
for their formation. However, the findings were sometimes inconsistent. Some
researchers found that memories for traumatic experiences are retrieved differ-
ently from nontraumatic positive and negative emotional memories (Berntsen,
2002; Peace & Porter, 2004; Porter & Peace, 2007; Tromp et al., 1995; van der
Kolk & Fisler, 1995), whereas others demonstrated that characteristics of these
memory types are highly similar (Butler & Wolfner, 2000; Gray & Lombardo,
2001). Still other researchers reported mixed findings that are difficult to inter-
pret (Berntsen, 2001; Byrne et al., 2001; Porter & Birt, 2001). In addition, the
studies suggesting that traumatic and emotional memories are different were
sometimes based on opposite findings. For example, Tromp et al. found that
traumatic recollections are less vivid and clear than are nontraumatic pleasant
memories. Conversely, findings from Porter and Peace’s studies (Peace & Porter;
Porter & Peace) indicated that traumatic memories are recalled more vividly and
are of higher quality relative to positive memories.
In addition to the aforementioned discrepancies, we argue that comparison
between studies is difficult because of the differences in the methodologies and
empirical strategies employed by the various researchers. Table 1 provides an
overview of the studies we have discussed. There are at least three classes of dif-
ferences between them. The first concerns the amount of time elapsed between
the occurrence of the experiences reported by the study participants and their
subsequent retrieval. In some studies, participants were free to select and report
traumatic recollections from either childhood or adulthood (Berntsen, 2001,
2002; Byrne et al., 2001; Porter & Birt, 2001; Tromp et al., 1995; van der Kolk &
Fisler, 1995). However, in other studies, researchers explicitly asked participants
to focus on memories for relatively recent events that occurred some months or
years before their participation in the study (Gray & Lombardo, 2001; Peace &
Porter, 2004; Porter & Peace, 2007). It can be argued that memories of recent
experiences are more precise and reliable than are remote memories. Consistent
with this view, a number of studies have demonstrated that recollections of
TABLE 1. Overview of Studies Investigating the Characteristics of Traumatic Versus Emotional Memories
460

Life period when the recalled


Study experiences occurred Instrument Characteristics of participants

S. Tromp, M. P. Childhood or adulthood Mailed questionnaire Sample 1 = 1,037 medical center employees (M age =
Koss, A. J. 36.6 years); Sample 2 = 2,142 university employees
Figueredo, & M. (M age = 40.5 years)
Tharan (1995)
C. A. Byrne, I. E. Childhood or adulthood Questionnaire 119 undergraduates (M age = 19.9 years)
The Journal of Psychology

Hyman, & K. L.
Scott (2001)
D. Berntsen (2002; Childhood or adulthood Questionnaire 114 undergraduates (M age = 27.4 years)
Experiment 2)
L. D. Butler & A. L. Before age 13 years Narrative description 48 undergraduates (M age = 19.4 years)
Wolfner (2000) and questionnaire
S. Porter & A. R. Childhood or adulthood Questionnaire 306 undergraduates (M age = 21.8 years)
Birt (2001)
K. A. Peace & S. Past year Interview (various 52 community adults (M age = 38.8 years)
Porter (2004); formats)
S. Porter & K. A.
Peace (2007)
B. A. van der Kolk Childhood or adulthood Face-to-face interview 46 community adults with PTSD (M age = 42 years)
& R. Fisler (1995)
M. J. Gray & T. W. 1 month to 5 years Narrative description 58 undergraduates: 29 with PTSD (M age = 19.4 years)
Lombardo (2001) before the study and 29 without PTSD (M age = 19.2 years)
D. Berntsen (2001; Childhood or adulthood Structured diary Study 2: 12 undergraduates with PTSD (M age = 25
Studies 2 and 4) years); Study 4: 14 undergraduates without PTSD
(M age = 26.3 years)

Note. PTSD = posttraumatic stress disorder.


Sotgiu & Mormont 461

traumatic childhood experiences, especially sexual abuse experiences, are subject


to memory distortions or forgetting (Banyard & Williams, 1996; Briere & Conte,
1993; Herman & Schatzow, 1987; Widom & Morris, 1997; Widom & Shepard,
1996; Williams, 1994). There is also evidence that under specific circumstances
childhood recollections may be associated with false memories, or memories for
personal experiences that never happened (Hyman, Husband, & Billings, 1995;
Loftus & Pickrell, 1995).
A second class of differences between the various studies we presented con-
cerns the nature of research settings and instruments employed. Whereas some
researchers brought together small groups of participants and asked them to com-
plete self-report questionnaires concerning their memories (Butler & Wolfner,
2000; Byrne et al., 2001), others followed a wide range of strategies, including
administering mailed questionnaires (Tromp et al., 1995), conducting telephone
(Porter & Peace, 2007) or face-to-face interviews (Peace & Porter, 2004; van der
Kolk & Fisler, 1995), and instructing participants to record memories in their
everyday life by using personal diaries (Berntsen, 2001). It is possible that these
ways of collecting data differentially affected the memory reports of participants.
For example, Gray and Lombardo (2001) observed that interviews are usually
stressful situations, which may interfere with the disclosure of highly traumatic
experiences; on the contrary, asking participants to write their memories may
encourage them to be more open and detailed.
The third class of differences involves the characteristics of the individuals
participating in the various investigations. Most of the studies were based on sam-
ples of undergraduate students (Berntsen, 2001, 2002; Butler & Wolfner, 2000;
Byrne et al., 2001; Gray and Lombardo, 2001; Porter & Birt, 2001), whereas
in some of the studies, researchers made an effort to collect data from samples
of adult community participants (Peace & Porter, 2004; Porter & Peace, 2007;
Tromp et al., 1995; van der Kolk & Fisler, 1995). Because the age of participants
was quite different in these two groups of studies (see Table 1), it is also likely
that the impact of trauma experiences on memory varied across participants. This
might have contributed to the discrepancies in the empirical findings.

Current Limitations and Future Research Directions

In the preceding sections, we gave a comprehensive account of the theoreti-


cal approaches and empirical research studying the characteristics of traumatic
versus emotional memories. Although many researchers have suggested that
traumatic memories have special qualities, the work in this area is at the begin-
ning stages, and definite conclusions await future research. In the present section,
we consider three main limitations that characterize the current empirical litera-
ture and identify some possible directions for future research.
A first limitation is that, in all studies, investigators asked participants to
recall an emotional event, either positive or negative, regardless of the specific
462 The Journal of Psychology

emotions they experienced. According to recent research in emotion psychol-


ogy, different emotional experiences are associated with distinctive eliciting
situations or events (Galati et al., 2005; Oatley & Duncan, 1994; Scherer et
al., 1986) as well as with differentiated patterns of cognitive, physiological,
and behavioral change (Deichert, Flack, & Craig, 2005; Frijda, Kuipers, &
ter Schure, 1989; Levenson, 1992; Rainville, Bechara, Naqvi, & Damasio, 2006;
Roseman, Antoniou, & Jose, 1996; Scherer, 1997). Fear, for example, is elicited
by threatening events, which are appraised as unexpected and beyond personal
control, and is associated with increased heart rate and flight behaviors. Sadness,
however, is evoked by situations involving the loss of something or someone
and is associated with the perception of goal obstacles, reduced blood pressure,
and withdrawal from contact with other people. Future researchers should com-
pare traumatic recollections with memories for emotional events referring to a
specific emotional state, such as fear, anger, sadness, or joy. In doing so, special
attention should be paid to how people remember the various components of
their experiences (i.e., cognitive, physiological, behavioral, subjective) and how
the latter are connected in long-term memory. This would allow researchers to
better understand whether traumatic and emotional memories are different and
what the main differences are.
Second, most researchers based their findings on self-reported memory
ratings and did not take into consideration the personal narratives of the study
participants, even when the latter were asked to provide them (Berntsen, 2002;
Butler & Wolfner, 2000). Two exceptions are the studies by Gray and Lombardo
(2001) and Porter and Birt (2001). Both groups of researchers compared nar-
ratives of traumatic versus emotional experiences, but it is worth nothing that
they focused mostly on the objective characteristics of memory reports, such as
sentence length and the quantity of details reported by the participants. We argue
that future researchers would benefit from analyzing the content and structure
of narratives of traumatic and emotional experiences. Investigating what people
recall about their experiences and how they put their memories into words may
represent a key strategy for revealing peculiarities in the encoding and storage
of personally significant events. It is reasonable to assume that, when recount-
ing their experiences, people focus on those aspects that were most important
for them. The use of specific categories of words (e.g., emotional, cognitive,
sensory) may also indicate whether or not experiences were integrated into the
context of the person’s life and what impact they had on his or her well-being
(Pennebaker & Francis, 1996). Indeed, in recent clinical and cognitive research,
investigators have successfully applied techniques of content analysis to narra-
tives of traumatic (Hellawell & Brewin, 2004; Jones, Harvey, & Brewin, 2007;
Sotgiu & Galati, 2007) and emotional memories (Bohanek, Fivush, & Walker,
2005; Fivush, Edwards, & Mennuti-Washburn, 2003). However, to the best of
our knowledge, there are no studies systematically comparing the content of both
types of recollections.
Sotgiu & Mormont 463

A further limitation of the current empirical literature involves the charac-


teristics of the clinical populations examined thus far. Unfortunately, researchers
have restricted their attention to people affected by PTSD symptoms. In line with
previous work (e.g., Reynolds & Brewin, 1999; Spenceley & Jerrom, 1997), it
can be assumed that traumatic memories are recurrent phenomena not only in
individuals with PTSD but also in individuals suffering from other disorders,
such as depression. Future researchers should examine traumatic and emotional
memories in samples of participants with different psychopathological disorders
as well as in normally functioning participants. This would add new data to the
literature that would expand researchers’ understanding of the complex relation
between memory, trauma, and psychopathology.

Conclusion

It is important to note that studying similarities and differences between


traumatic and emotional memories has important implications not only on a
theoretical and empirical level but also on an application level. Clinicians and
psychotherapists frequently work with with patients who report intrusive and
recurrent memories for emotionally charged events of varying intensity. In
being able to distinguish autobiographical memories according to their content
(traumatic vs. emotional), clinical practitioners may gain insight into the life
experiences playing a role in the development of specific psychopathological
disorders, such as PTSD and depression. In addition, by encouraging patients to
make comparisons and distinctions among their personal memories, clinicians
may help patients to become aware of their internal conflicts and feelings, thus
promoting therapeutic change in their lives. Future researchers should investigate
these potential applications.

AUTHOR NOTES
Igor Sotgiu is a research fellow at the University of Turin, Italy, where he earned
his doctorate in psychology. His research interest is the psychology of emotion and
trauma. Christian Mormont is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of
Liège, Belgium, where he is the president of the Violence and Traumatism Center.

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Original manuscript received April 27, 2007


Final version accepted August 20, 2007
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.