What is the connection between Memory and Trauma?

Due to traumatic experiences, children tend to face problems with memory, not just while recalling details about the trauma, but also while consolidating information in the course of their lives.
Trauma that occurred during childhood shows its effects over time till adulthood through disruptions or dysfunctions in social, cognitive, behavioural or even biological functioning (Unsplash)
Trauma that occurred during childhood shows its effects over time till adulthood through disruptions or dysfunctions in social, cognitive, behavioural or even biological functioning (Unsplash)

Trauma that occurred during childhood shows its effects over time till adulthood through disruptions or dysfunctions in social, cognitive, behavioral, or even biological functioning. These effects differ based on the kind of event experienced, whether it was a one-time event or several chronic, long-lasting ones, or due to the developmental stage at which the trauma was experienced..

Due to traumatic experiences, children tend to face problems with memory, not just while recalling details about the trauma, but also while consolidating information in the course of their lives.

Memory in the context of children who have been through traumatic experiences began while examining the accuracy and reliability of their memory recall. To begin with, trauma can be defined as the result of an overwhelming amount of stress exceeding an individual’s ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved in the experience. The way people cope with trauma differs according to their experiences. It is thus possible that some people may not even feel the psychological effects of trauma. While studying the effects of trauma on children, it is important to take into consideration the developmental stage at which it occurred, the nature of the trauma as well as the social ecology in which it occurred.

Trauma that occurred during childhood shows its effects over time till adulthood through disruptions or dysfunctions in social, cognitive, behavioural or even biological functioning (Unsplash)
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According to Cicchetti and Tucker (1994), accurate or inaccurate recall may occur as a function of the status of an individual’s neurobiological development at the time of the occurrence of the traumatic event. The type of trauma also has an effect on the way memory is affected. If a child experiences a single traumatic event, it is generally recalled accurately with great detail. However, if there are multiple events of trauma, the details are poorly recalled. The core experiences may be remembered more strongly than unique characteristics or experiences during each event. According to studies, mood congruent information is more likely to be recalled than mood incongruent material. Furthermore, the presence of emotion enhances memory. Thus, not all aspects of the trauma are similarly well-recalled.

All memories are fluid and subject to distortion, even recollections of trauma. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that the pattern of memory distortion may be identified, both from laboratory and field investigations. People tend to remember more trauma than they actually experienced, and those who do tend to display more of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder known as "re-experiencing".
Priya N, PhD Scholar, Department of Clinical Neuroscience, NIMHANS, Bengaluru, India
The main changes take place in the hippocampus and Corpus Callosum, which play an important role in the neurological responses to stress (Unsplash)
The main changes take place in the hippocampus and Corpus Callosum, which play an important role in the neurological responses to stress (Unsplash)

Some theories try to explain how and why certain memories about trauma are recalled. According to the survival perspective, evolution helps us remember and recognize the danger during the trauma to avoid similar future events. On the contrary, it also helps individuals to cope with traumatic events by excluding them from conscious awareness. Moving towards the long-term effects of trauma, it has been observed that trauma leads to changes in brain structure, thus inducing changes in behavior, cognitive thinking, neurodevelopment, etc.

The main changes take place in the hippocampus and corpus callosum, which play an important role in the neurological responses to stress. For example, severe trauma can sometimes lead to PTSD. The stress experienced due to this disorder produces high levels of cortisol in the brain, thus decreasing hippocampal volume

Trauma that occurred during childhood shows its effects over time till adulthood through disruptions or dysfunctions in social, cognitive, behavioural or even biological functioning (Unsplash)
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The hippocampus is a part of the limbic system that helps to consolidate information from short-term memory to long-term memory. It helps to form new memories about experienced events (episodic memory) as well as declarative memory, or memory about facts or general knowledge-related information. It also encodes emotional context from the amygdala.

Since it is a sensitive part of the brain, high levels of stress can adversely affect its functioning. Thus, childhood trauma causes the hippocampus to shrink, thus leading to deficits in memory function.

The brain stem and prefrontal cortex cannot be highly active at the same time, thus limiting the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. This leads to difficulties in engaging with learning activities, difficulty applying logic and solving problems (Unsplash)
The brain stem and prefrontal cortex cannot be highly active at the same time, thus limiting the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. This leads to difficulties in engaging with learning activities, difficulty applying logic and solving problems (Unsplash)

Another explanation is that exposure to trauma fires up the fight or flight response in the body, which is what invariably leads to high levels of stress and thus high levels of cortisol. This excessive production of cortisol damages CA3 neurons in the hippocampus which are important in memory consolidation due to rich internal connectivity. Studies have shown that trauma may affect learning as well. Individuals who have been through trauma may display hyperarousal or hypo-arousal in stressful situations.

This causes over-activity in the brain stem. The brain stem and prefrontal cortex cannot be highly active at the same time, thus limiting the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. This leads to difficulties in engaging with learning activities, difficulty applying logic, and solving problems. There is still much scope for research about the effects of trauma on memory and learning in a child. These effects range from being an immediate consequence to having a long-term effect on the child’s neurobiological functioning. Since there is no single way in which the brain is affected, it becomes important to understand all aspects of trauma it paves way for further research in treatment or precautions while dealing with trauma in children.

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