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Emotional trauma and childhood amnesia

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It has been reported that, on average, most adults recall first memories formed around age 3.5. In general, most first memories are positive. However, whether these first memories tend to be visual or verbal and whether the period for childhood amnesia (CA) is greater for visual or verbal or for positive versus negative memories has not been determined. Because negative, stressful experiences disrupt memory and can injure memory centers such as the hippocampus and amygdala, and since adults who were traumatized or abused during childhood (TA) reportedly suffer memory disturbances, it was hypothesized that those with a history of early trauma might suffer from a lengthier childhood amnesia and form their first recallable memories at a later age as compared to the general population (GP). Because the right hemisphere matures earlier than the language-dominant left hemisphere, and is dominant for visual and emotional memory, as well as the stress reponse, it was hypothesized that first recallable memories would be visual rather than verbal. Lastly, since stress can injure the brain and disrupt memory, it was hypothesized that the traumatized group would demonstrate memory and intellectual disturbances associated with right hemisphere injury as based on WAIS-R, Wechsler Memory Scale, and facial-memory testing. All hypotheses were supported. Positive and visual memories are formed before negative and verbal memories. TA CA offset, on average, is at age 6.1 versus 3.5 for GPs. TA PIQ (performance IQ), short-term visual memory, and facial memory were significantly reduced.

Keywords: abuse; amnesia; development; memory; trauma

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Brain Research Laboratory San Jose, California

Publication date: January 1, 2003


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