Memory in posttraumatic stress disorder: properties of voluntary and involuntary, traumatic and nontraumatic autobiographical memories in people with and without posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2008 Nov;137(4):591-614. doi: 10.1037/a0013165.


One hundred fifteen undergraduates rated 15 word-cued memories and their 3 most negatively stressful, 3 most positive, and 7 most important events and completed tests of personality and depression. Eighty-nine also recorded involuntary memories online for 1 week. In the first 3-way comparisons needed to test existing theories, comparisons were made of memories of stressful events versus control events and involuntary versus voluntary memories in people high versus low in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptom severity. For all participants, stressful memories had more emotional intensity, more frequent voluntary and involuntary retrieval, but not more fragmentation. For all memories, participants with greater PTSD symptom severity showed the same differences. Involuntary memories had more emotional intensity and less centrality to the life story than voluntary memories. Meeting the diagnostic criteria for traumatic events had no effect, but the emotional responses to events did. In 533 undergraduates, correlations among measures were replicated and the Negative Intensity factor of the Affect Intensity Measure correlated with PTSD symptom severity. No special trauma mechanisms were needed to account for the results, which are summarized by the autobiographical memory theory of PTSD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adolescent
  • Cues
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imagination
  • Individuality
  • Life Change Events
  • Male
  • Mental Recall*
  • Semantics
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / diagnosis
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology*
  • Students / psychology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult