Today, I'm going to start with episodic memory for traumatic and emotional events. I'll use myself as an example:
The day after Christmas 2005, my sister and I were in a car accident. My car slid on a wet highway, straight under a semi-truck whose driver had made the ill-timed decision to turn left across three lanes of traffic. As you see above, the roof of the car was ripped off, the windshield shattered, and the driver's side was more or less crushed (see that lovely piece of jagged metal right where my face should have been?)
My sister and I were not seriously injured.
Afterward, as the paramedics tweezed glass out of our ears and hair, one of them commented that, when he drove up to the accident and saw our car, he expected to be transporting us to a Level-I trauma center. The news anchor who reported the story called it a "miracle". The firefighters told us to buy lottery tickets.
This is an example of an emotionally intense event. It had the potential to be truly traumatic, but we were fortunate that day.
What I remember about this car accident:
My sister shouting, "Get down!" as we slid. I think I yelled the same thing, but I'm honestly not sure.
Covering my face and ducking to the right as the hood of my car disappeared beneath the side of the truck.
Rip-shatter-clatter-scrape (that noise is probably the MOST prominent memory I have). Hiss. Funny smell.
Looking up and seeing the underbelly of the truck a few inches above me. Feeling surprised it was so close.
The sound of a car door opening.
My sister screaming, "We have to get out!"
Crawling over the passenger seat.
Looking down and seeing a package we were going to mail. Reaching for it, thinking I can't forget to mail that.
My sister shouting, "Leave it!" and pulling my hand.
Here's what I don't remember:
Hitting my knee on the dash, hard enough to rip cartilage. It took me over an hour to register the pain.
Getting pelted and sliced with shattering glass--and yet, I had cuts all over the backs of my hands and glass in every conceivable crevice.
The motion of the car as it was dragged along the ground and nearly crushed by the semi's rear wheels.
Anything about my sister except her voice and her hands ... but I must have looked at her. And I know her face almost as well as I know my own. But I can't remember it at all.
In other words, I have vivid, striking memories of certain aspects of the event (mostly, but not all, auditory). And I have no memory at all of others (mostly tactile and visual).
My memories of that accident are stronger than my memories of what I did that morning before getting in the car, what I did the next day and the day after that. But also--my memory of that accident is more detailed than most of my memories of what I did last week. That's most likely because the accident was a highly emotional event. My brain was bathed in noradrenaline. My amygdala (part of the brain involved in processing and encoding memories of emotion-laden events) was seriously activated. Therefore, my episodic memory for that event is strong. It's just not complete (which probably has to do with something called memory binding, and if you're really interested, you can find an article about it here).
Memory for emotionally intense events is usually pretty detailed and vivid. Sometimes overwhelmingly so. These memories also tend to be more accurate than memories of emotionally neutral events. But research shows that our personal sense of the vividness of a memory does not necessarily mean that the memory is entirely accurate. Sometimes people are really certain about the accuracy of memories that are, in fact, distorted in some way (that's the weakness of eyewitness testimony). Our minds are not video cameras (contrary to popular belief--one study showed that over 80% of people believe our minds accurately record everything and we just can't remember it all). We actually don't encode everything, and our recall of events is influenced by a number of factors I'll talk about Wednesday.
Are traumatic events or memory of traumatic events a key feature of something you've written or are working on? How do you portray those events or memories?
Also, check out Laura's Mental Health Monday post, as well as Lydia's Medical Monday post.