Memory and depression

Our recall of the past influences how we approach the present. But our research shows memory can also be a direct window into our psychological wellbeing.

How you recall the past could predict your risk of depression in the future

Every day we use our personal memories of past experiences to guide us through life, to solve problems, anticipate events and build relationships with others.

Autobiographical memories—our memories of personal experiences—define who we are but research by Professor Karen Salmon shows there is also a clear relationship between how personal experiences are remembered by an individual and their psychological functioning.

Her research focuses on children and young people as she works to find out more about the growth in depression in the adolescent years.

“If someone is depressed at one point, in their adolescence for example,” says Professor Salmon, “they are at greater risk of having depression in the future. So it is important to understand the factors involved in those early episodes.”

Overgeneral memory

An area of research focus for Professor Salmon is overgeneral memory, where people are asked for a specific memory of a unique event, such as a time they felt happy, and they respond with a general memory such as ‘when I used to go on holiday I felt happy’.

She says there is plenty of evidence that overgeneral memories happen when people are depressed and that they predict a worse outcome for depression in adults.

“But what we haven’t known is whether overgeneral memory also predicts the beginning of depression in adolescents.”

By studying a group of young people over a four-year period, Professor Salmon and her students have found that engaging in a lot of repetitive negative thinking, especially thoughts like ‘why does this always happen to me’, combined with overgeneral memories can lead to increased anxiety over time for young people.

That research, led by Professor Salmon and Professor Paul Jose from the School of Psychology, has been supported by the Marsden Fund Council from Government funding managed by the Royal Society Te Apārangi.

Turning point memories

Another area of focus has been the way young people recall key personal events that have been a turning point in their lives. Professor Salmon says people’s ability to narrate these experiences develops during the adolescent years.

“Turning point memories are quite a rich window into how people see themselves, remember their experiences, how they are able to make sense of them and draw lessons from them.”

Professor Salmon and her team have found that the way adolescents talk about a turning point can predict a growth in depression over time. For those who described such an event in greater detail, including what happened, how they felt and what they saw, depression increased across the next year.

“Our thinking on this is that something about the way these adolescents are dwelling on the detail of what happened to them is related to vulnerability to depression.”

A window to the mind

Professor Salmon says memories are a rich tool for understanding depression partly because they are so pervasive in our everyday lives.

“But they are also a more direct window into people’s psychological wellbeing because you don’t have to understand yourself entirely to report a memory. Cognitive skills are still developing right through adolescence so a young person might not know some things about themselves, but memory can just be reported as a narrative—you don’t have to be able to evaluate it in quite the same way as you would if you were providing answers to a questionnaire.”

She says new treatments for young people experiencing depression could result from the work.

“The goal is to help them manage their memories more flexibly, to know when they are getting caught in an experience and to take a step back.

“Flexibility in the way we manage our thinking, memories and emotions is key to adapting well to all the experiences that life throws at us,” she says.

To find out more

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