Traumatic Long-Term Memory Term Paper

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Traumatic Long-Term Memory and related issues of forgetfulness. The differentiation of current competing theories under review regarding Traumatic Long-Term Memory are explored and critiqued. This research paper also explains the differences between the theories and their positive / negative contributions toward improving human memory.

Long-Term Memory is memory that has been consolidated or stored so that it is available after distraction (Long, 1996). It represents the storehouse of information that has been consolidated and made relatively permanent. Although the limbic system is the essential structure initiating consolidation, the actual memory stores are throughout the nervous system. Their location is a function of the brain structures involved in processing the information (Long, 1996).

Receptors to projection cortex have very little storage capability as they are used to process all information for that modality and thus are subject to interference. The sensory association cortex is more important for, at this level, patterns of neurons can be unique and selectively process information with less interference (Long, 1996). Specifically, Long-Term memory and Short-Term memory are not separate entities but highly interdependent; both contribute to the other.

Currently, there are several competing theories relating to the cognitive phenomena of Traumatic Long-Term Memory. The theories examined in this paper will be: The Decay Theory, The Disuse Theory, The Interference Theory, The Motivated Forgetting Theory, and the False Memory Syndrome Theory.

Theories of Traumatic Long-Term Memory

The Theory of Decay

One theory is the Theory of Decay, which suggests that sensory impressions and acquired knowledge of facts leave memory traces in the brain, which gradually fade causing the loss of the information (Pettijohn, 1998). This theory states that information retained will eventually be lost as the person ages; the amount of time it takes to forget is entirely dependant on the individual (Pettijohn, 1998).

The Theory of Disuse

Bjork & Bjork's Theory of Disuse suggests that decay occurs not because of time but because of the inability to associate or use the information with any other information. Bjork and Bjork believe that the memory traces, if used constantly or associated with other information, will not begin to fade and the memory could be retrieved easily (Bjork & Bjork, 1992).

Both the Theory of Decay and the Theory of Disuse explain why information is forgotten. However, neither theories factor in Long-Term Memory, meaning they do not explain why people can recall information from their childhood but forget something that occurred only a few days ago (Brown, 1976).

Although the Theory of Decay and the Theory of Disuse are generally the same except for the causes of loss, decay is more widely believed by many people in today's societies (Pettijohn, 1998).

The Theory of Interference

Benton Underwood's Theory of Interference states that once information is properly encoded and stored in long-term memory the information is relatively permanent; however, because of interference we are unable to retrieve the information at one time but at another (Underwood, 1976).

The two types of Interference pertaining to this theory are: Proactive Interference (PI), which is information retained before the memory you are trying to retrieve; the second type of interference is Retroactive Interference (RI), which is the information retained after the memory you are trying to retrieve (Brown, 1976).

A scientist by the name of White believes that when rare moments occur the human mind is more apt to remember them in relation to average moments over extended periods of time. This suggests the importance of Interference (especially proactive interference) in the difficulty of recalling episodic events (White, 1989).

Underwood also believes that in addition to Interference, the human mind is unable to recall long-term memories due to a lack of environmental stimulus. Underwood believes that when people encode information the human mind uses critical features of the event to encode and recall the event at a later time (Underwood, 1998). This explains why people can recall information easier when they are in the same environment when the information was first encoded.

Many psychologists currently believe in the Interference Theory because it explains why people can recall memories of their childhood, yet the theory does not explain why it only applies with some memories and not all; psychologists also tend to criticize that much of the work has been on nonsense syllables or unrelated words and its applicability to everyday situations is not yet fully known (White, 1998).

The Motivated Forgetting Theory

The Motivated Forgetting Theory, highly believed by Sigmund Freud, suggest that people forget things because they do not want to remember them for certain reasons (Schmidt, 2000). Another name for this type of forgetting is "repression" (Schmidt, 2000). Freud believes that when people have painful or anxiety-arousing episodes, they repress them into their unconscious minds and thereafter have a difficult time retrieving them. Freud proposes that any information repressed does not fade away from memory, we may force ourselves to forget them but they still remain in storage and the human mind still has the ability to remember them (Schmidt, 2000).

Anderson also believes that repression causes the loss of certain memories, but he feels that repression is caused not by anxiety-arousing episodes, but by post-traumatic shock (Anderson, 1995). Through his experiments he concludes that many people forget specific time periods when something traumatizing occurs in their lives. One of his experiments included the infamous, Sirham; he could not remember shooting Robert Kennedy (Anderson, 1995).

Parkin, another scientist who believes repression is caused by post-traumatic shock, experimented with survivors of the Holocaust and discovered that well-adjusted survivors are less able to recall their dreams than poorly adjusted survivors when woken (Parkin, 1993).

The False Memory Syndrome Theory / The Gestalt Theory of Forgetting

The False Memory Syndrome Theory, also known as The Gestalt Theory of Forgetting, suggests that when memories and information are encoded with details missing the mind automatically provides that information making it whole (Wulf, 1922). The founder of this theory, Wulf, has no explanations as to where the information is obtained in order to make the memory whole. This theory is highly criticized by many psychologists because it suggests that memories, if not detailed, are somehow altered and no longer accurate (Pettijohn, 1998).


Although forgetting is a natural event, the human mind is capable of recalling information and delaying the loss of memory. In the Theory of Decay, it is believed that memory is lost through the aging process (Pettijohn, 1998). Similar to the Theory of Decay is the Theory of Disuse, which states that in order to retain the information, it must be in constant use or associated to other information for the memory traces to remain active in the human mind (Bjork & Bjork, 1992). In the Theory of Motivated Forgetting - highly believed by Freud - a person must want to remember some anxiety-arousing episode in their life. Freud also states that once information is properly encoded in long-term memory it becomes relatively permanent (Schmidt, 2000). The Interference Theory, suggested by Underwood, proposes that if information is encoded properly into the human memory, the retrieval of information - whether learned early in life or later - will be easier to retrieve (Underwood, 1998).

Due to the broad range of theories surrounding Traumatic Long-Term Memory and the variables associated with individuals based on their ability to recall and amount of time, no one theory is believed by all psychologists. Ongoing research on human memory promises to help shed more light on the processes of Traumatic Long-Term Memory and forgetting (Pettijohn, 1998).

Long-term memory is information that we recall after a day, two weeks, or ten years. For most head-injured people, their long-term memory tends to be good. After you get a head injury, short-term memory isn't working, so information has a hard time getting to long-term memory. For example, head-injured people may double or triple their usual study time in preparing for a test the next day. By the time they get to the exam, they are completely blank on the material. The little events of the day are sometimes forgotten, making life "fly by" when you look back at events that have happened since the injury.

One of the most important things is to get help from people who specialize in head injury. Every head injury program has a specialist who teaches memory strategies. In most cases, this is a Speech Therapist (they don't just help people who have slurred speech). In the Neuro-Recovery program, a Speech Therapist teaches fifteen different memory strategies and helps you to pick the two or three that work best for you. There is often a fair amount of testing in order to figure out the best memory strategy for each head-injured person. For some people, one type of memory may be impaired (verbal recall) but another type may be intact (remembering visual information). If I know that my verbal memory is not very good, I write things down and encourage visual memory systems to work. Specialists can help you pick out the best memory strategies to…

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