PTSD and the role of spontaneous elaborative "nonmemories."

Jacinta Oulton, Deryn Strange, Reginald Nixon, Melanie Takarangi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Following a traumatic experience, people often experience involuntary cognitions- that is, spontaneously occurring thoughts, memories, or images. Although trauma victims commonly experience involuntary memories, they also experience involuntary nonmemories, a subset of which are elaborative (i.e., cognitions about event details that did not actually occur). These cognitions may help to maintain posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptomology by contributing to an ongoing sense of current threat. However, it is unclear whether trauma-exposed people with PTSD are more prone to elaborative nonmemories about past trauma than healthy, trauma-exposed people. Further, the experience of elaborative nonmemories has largely been overlooked by previous researchers. Our objective in the current study was to address both of these gaps in the literature. A large sample of adults in the United States (N = 393) described recent involuntary cognitions about their most traumatic experience and rated them on various characteristics (e.g., vividness and distress). Participants also completed several measures of psychopathology, including PTSD symptoms. Two independent raters blind to our hypotheses later coded cognition descriptions according to their content. Although memories were predominant, 18.8% of cognitions were nonmemories, which commonly involved imagination of new event details, and were more frequent among probable-PTSD participants than non PTSD participants. Critically, memories and nonmemories were indistinguishable for many phenomenological characteristics, including vividness and associated distress. Our findings suggest that PTSD may be characterized by involuntary elaborative nonmemories that are largely indistinguishable from memories in terms of their phenomenological experience.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)398-413
Number of pages16
JournalPsychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice
Issue number4
Early online date28 May 2018
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018


  • PTSD
  • Intrusions
  • Trauma
  • Autobiographical memory
  • Involuntary cognitions


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