How Can I Remember When "I" Wasn′t There: Long-Term Retention of Traumatic Experiences and Emergence of the Cognitive Self

Consciousness and Cognition 3 (3-4):327-355 (1994)
In this article, we focus on two issues, namely, the nature and onset of very early personal memories, especially for traumatic events, and the role of stress in long-term retention. We begin by outlining a theory of early autobiographical memory, one whose unfolding is coincident with emergence of the cognitive self. It is argued that it is not until this self emerges that personal memories will remain viable over extended periods of time. We illustrate this with 25 cases of young children′s long-term retention of early traumatic events involving emergency room treatment. On the basis of both qualitative and quantitative analyses, we conclude that very young children retain limited memories for events which they commonly express behaviorally, coherent autobiographical memories are not constructed until the child develops a cognitive sense of self , autobiographical memories for traumatic events are essentially no different from those for nontraumatic events, stress is only related to long-term retention inasmuch as it is one variable that serves to make an event unique, and like nontraumatic events, traumatic memories lose peripheral details during the retention interval and retain the central components of the event. These results are discussed both in terms of their implications for theories of early autobiographical memory as well as the ways in which we might differentiate implanted memories and authentic memories for traumatic events
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DOI 10.1006/ccog.1994.1019
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