Mental Imagery and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Neuroimaging and Experimental Psychopathology Approach to Intrusive Memories of Trauma

Front Psychiatry. 2015 Jul 22;6:104. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2015.00104. eCollection 2015.


This hypothesis and theory paper presents a pragmatic framework to help bridge the clinical presentation and neuroscience of intrusive memories following psychological trauma. Intrusive memories are a hallmark symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, key questions, including those involving etiology, remain. In particular, we know little about the brain mechanisms involved in why only some moments of the trauma return as intrusive memories while others do not. We first present an overview of the patient experience of intrusive memories and the neuroimaging studies that have investigated intrusive memories in PTSD patients. Next, one mechanism of how to model intrusive memories in the laboratory, the trauma film paradigm, is examined. In particular, we focus on studies combining the trauma film paradigm with neuroimaging. Stemming from the clinical presentation and our current understanding of the processes involved in intrusive memories, we propose a framework in which an intrusive memory comprises five component parts; autobiographical (trauma) memory, involuntary recall, negative emotions, attention hijacking, and mental imagery. Each component part is considered in turn, both behaviorally and from a brain imaging perspective. A mapping of these five components onto our understanding of the brain is described. Unanswered questions that exist in our understanding of intrusive memories are considered using the proposed framework. Overall, we suggest that mental imagery is key to bridging the experience, memory, and intrusive recollection of the traumatic event. Further, we suggest that by considering the brain mechanisms involved in the component parts of an intrusive memory, in particular mental imagery, we may be able to aid the development of a firmer bridge between patients' experiences of intrusive memories and the clinical neuroscience behind them.

Keywords: experimental psychopathology; flashbacks; intrusive memory; mental imagery; neuroimaging; post-traumatic stress disorder; psychological trauma; trauma film paradigm.

Publication types

  • Review