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The Making of Memory:
Is it better to forget trauma?

Listen to The Making of Memory

Tuesday 15 August 9.00pm repeated Wednesday 4.30pm

This three-part series unravels some of the latest scientific research into how memory works with some of the leading experts in the field. We'll explore fundamental questions such as does our memory have infinite capacity? Why are some people are better at remembering than others? Might drugs already being developed and tested be able to improve our memory? And is there a genetic cause to dementia or is it down to our lifestyle choices?

For people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), powerful memories of traumatic events are often a stressful intrusion into the present. Flashbacks, as they're known, are just one of the better-known symptoms of this complex condition which can involve all the senses and produce seemingly crippling physical symptoms as well as emotional ones.

In evolutionary terms it's useful to remember the circumstances surrounding a threat but with post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, sufferers are usually desperate to put these events behind them, to forget and move on. So why are they unable to do so?

Research into PTSD has given us insights into how we lay down memories and the relationship between emotions, stress and memory pathways. Research in the US has revealed that PTSD can damage our brains - withering connections and killing off cells.

Closer to home, Royal Society research fellow, Dr Emily Holmes at the University of Oxford has been exploring what sorts of cogntive processes might be related to the development of some of the symptoms of PTSD in healthy volunteers, whilst Dr Chris Brewin at University College London explains how best PTSD should be treated, including helping the sufferer to change the memory to make it more positive.

There are even suggestions that certain drugs might if given at the right time, prevent PTSD from occurring, leading to the thought that drugs might even help sufferers erase the trauma from their minds for good.


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Avril Dawson
My son killed himself on his 20th. birthday, nearly 5 years ago. Although I was given counselling for grief, it was not until I had private cognitive behavioural therapy that I understood , and was able to separate, the PTSD from the ongoing grief. I thought I would always have to see those flashbacks and hear the sound of my own screaming without any control over them. That therapist has given me my (altered for ever) life back. I know so many people who have had a similar experience to me, but have not been able to pay for such therapy.

I experienced a PTSD period of over 6 years following the slow and very painful death of a close relative. Listening about and thereafter reading about the hippocampus and how it may change after trauma, made me think about the memory problems I have had since the death. Now I can think about retraining my memory since I am convinced that I lost a great deal of memorial capacity since the trauma.

Having survived a life-threatening stranger attack 4 years ago, I now live with the unwanted flashes and the instinctive memory of the event that can still be triggered by hearing or reading about similar attacks, or being in a lonely place, The flashes are now less intensive most of the time, but they bring the past into the present... It's as if there is a great divide in my life - the before and the after of thes event and somehow the gap doesn't close. It's all very uncanny and unsettling. So I found the talk on PTSD reassuring - to know I'm not alone in this - but with not real idea of what one can do to get beyond it. In lay terms, I guess you just have to get on with living, be a survivor not a victim, and then give your head a shake when those unwanted flashes come....

D Jamieson
Excellent, well balanced programme.

Sarah Keast
This programme has provided a most articulate explaination for the reasons causing PTSD and the way that sufferes feel. I have struggled with this disorder for several years and no one has ever explained it more clearly. I think it would be very useful to have a copy of the programme. Is this possible?

Barbara Schaefer, MA
I was fascinated to hear the argument from the therapist that revisiting while the patient is in charge, can facilitate processing/healing. I believe there are strong implications for a self-understanding of therapy/therapists. I am both an adult survivor of emotional abuse and a mature social worker/counsellor, have experienced some of this healing in Psychodrama - where ideally, as Moreno stated, the second (i.e. repeated)experience is what heals!) see my website re related research, I am also continuing research into this area towards DProf.

Brian Maunder
As a psychoanalytic Psychotherapist I have experienced PTSD as having its roots in the earlier life prior to the particular trauma. These earlier, even infant, coping strategies cause the patient to attempt to deal with the current trauma in similar style. Thus it is often the earlier, mostly forgotton, trauma that holds the key. This gives some ecplaination as to why the debriefing style of therapy seems to be counter productive.

George C.A. Talbot
Your third episode, 15th August, clearly explains how traumatic events release chemicals like cortisone and adrenaline so that we remain mindful of them. But despite noting how evolution would select for this, it supposes these memories become intrusive because of cognitive faults. Yet all the higher animals learn emotionally. This process is described by behaviourism. Why was it ignored?

I am reminded of a TV program broadcast some months ago, Horizon maybe, in which a young woman describes a fear of birds unaltered after several treatments over 15 years. Then she sat with a behavioural therapist who introduced her to feathers while her stress was displayed. Initially, she could just tolerate a tiny feather on a nearby table. But after discussing its innocuous nature for a few minutes, her stress subsided. Gradually the feather was brought nearer and increased in size until, to her amazement, she could calmly stroke a large feather. Treatment took two hours!

Recovery did not require her to recall the events that caused this phobia. Later, she described being frightened by birds when she was a child. However, she simply learned to associate feathers with pleasant safety. Then birds no longer terrified her and she attended her 7-year-old daughter’s Sports Day for the first time!

Could the failure of treatment for PTSD occur because the memories are targeted when it is actually sustained by learned emotional responses? Are well-learned emotions inflaming the memories?

I recall a later TV program in which two women and a man with long established OCD recovered in a few weeks. It shows them engaging in behavioural treatments and recovering fully. Associated psychotherapy was not shown so I can’t say whether repressed emotions helped sustain the diseases.

I accept that false narratives of the trauma should be challenged and corrected. But the testimonies of your victims show this may not secure recovery. Such is the power of emotions over language!

djk simon
31 years ago I was in a bombing that killed 17 people. To this day, I still vividly remember the details - the most amazing to me was the depth and intensity of the silence that followed the explosion. It seemed at the time that the stillness seemed to go on for many minutes, though I know that's not possible. The silence, in some ways, seemed louder than the explosion. Loud noises still remind me of my fear and watching news footage of bombings still causes me to relive the experience.

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