Could “Hazy Recall” or an “Overgeneral Memory” signal future depression?

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According to an article in the New York Times, studies into depression are revealing that the way we actually remember things could indicate future depression.

It’s all to do with a phenomenon called “overgeneral memory” which basically means that during memory recall, we miss out the details of past experiences, and a tendency to make a habit out of missing out the details has been linked to depression.

For example, participants in a study carried out at Oxford, Northwestern University in Illinois, were given a cue word and had 30 seconds to come up with a specific memory of a single event. One cue word was “rejected” and a specific response to that cue word was “A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with my boss and my ideas were rejected”.

On the other hand a vague or hazy response by another participant was “my brothers are always talking about going on holiday without me”. You can see that this second response was not a specific memory at all but referred to something that happened on more than one occasion.

Overgeneral memory is “an unsung vulnerability factor for unhelpful reactions when things go wrong in life,” said Mark Williams, the clinical psychologist who has been leading the Oxford studies.

According to the NYT Dr Williams first discovered overgeneral memory purely by chance back in the 80’s when he asked research subjects to write down memories after giving them certain cues but thought he hadn’t made the instructions clear enough when some of them left the page blank. He also found in a previous study that inducing an overgeneral memory style in participants made them less able to solve problems.

Research is now being carried out by Oxford University on thousands of youngsters to see whether those who display overgeneral memory traits are more likely to suffer from depression in the future.

“Based on everything we know of memory specificity and depression, there’s a good chance we will find these effects,” said Dirk Hermans, a research psychologist at the University of Leuven in Belgium who collaborates with Dr. Williams.

Of course sometimes it’s helpful to have an overgeneral memory as it could be a way to lessen painful or traumatic memories but the problems seem to begin when it becomes the norm to do so.

“If you’re unhappy and you want to be happy, it’s helpful to have memories that you can navigate through to come up with specific solutions,” Dr. Williams said. “It’s like a safety net.”

According to Dr. Williams overgeneral memory can be helped by “mindfulness”, a form of meditation that encourages us to accept negative thoughts rather than trying to avoid them as by becoming more tolerant of negative memories we are less likely to try to escape them, a tendency which can lead to overgenerality.

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