Imagining trauma: Memory amplification and the role of elaborative cognitions

Jacinta Oulton, Deryn Strange, Reginald Nixon, Melanie Takarangi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Background and objectives: Trauma victims, such as war veterans, often remember additional traumatic events over time: the “memory amplification effect”. This effect is associated with the re-experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including frequent and intrusive images of the trauma. One explanation for memory amplification is that people gradually incorporate new, imagined information about the trauma with what they actually experienced, leading to an amplified memory for what actually happened. We investigated this proposal here. Methods: Participants viewed highly negative and graphic photographs and recorded their intrusions. Critically, we instructed some participants to elaborate on their intrusions—that is, we asked them to imagine details about the trauma beyond what they actually witnessed. We assessed memory for the traumatic photos twice, 24-h apart. Results: The elaboration condition experienced fewer intrusions about the photos compared to the control condition. Furthermore, the elaboration condition were less susceptible to memory amplification compared to controls. Limitations: The use of negative photos allowed experimental control, however does not permit generalization of our findings to real-world traumatic experiences. Conclusions: Our findings suggest that effortful imagination of new trauma-related details leads to a reduction in intrusions and an increased tendency to not endorse trauma exposure over time. One explanation for this finding is that elaboration enhanced conceptual processing of the trauma analogue, therefore reducing intrusions. Critically, this reduction in intrusions affected participants' tendency to endorse trauma exposure, which is consistent with the reality-monitoring explanation for memory amplification.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)78-86
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2018


  • PTSD
  • Memory
  • Intrusions
  • Trauma analogue


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