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Can one memory shape your life?

Can one memory define you?

Do memories shape us, or do we shape our memories? Can one event change your life forever?

Researcher Yochai Ataria from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem argues one traumatic event can change a person’s sense of self, and their identity. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, “a traumatic event is an experience that causes physical, emotional, psychological distress, or harm. It is an event that is perceived and experienced as a threat to one’s safety or to the stability of one’s world.” Traumatic events can include a death of someone close to a person, hospitalization, terrorism, violence, physical injury, mass disasters, and other horrific events. Traumatic memories have the power seep into a person’s life, making it unable for the person to do anything but think of that event.


Maybe some of you have experienced a traumatic event, but I hope you haven’t. Unfortunately, I have. I watched my Dad pass as I held his hand. I often can’t get the image of him taking his last breath out of my mind, or the last time he said “I love you.”

In this study, Ataria wanted to better understand the effects of traumatic events on people. He wanted to do this by using a “phenomenological approach,” or rather he tried to use descriptions. He did not have any hypothesis going into the study. He wanted the stories to speak for themselves, and then draw conclusions.

Ataria interviewed Israelis who had been victims of terror attacks. Interviewees described their experiences in terms of how it felt, or rather their bodily experience during the actual trauma.

People often have one very strong memory of their traumatic event, usually either the initial moment of impact, or the most distressing part of the occurrence. Often in acts of terror, people remember the horrors, dead bodies, blood, or a person close to them suffering. When describing these memories, participants report feeing the same bodily responses as they did at the initial event. These sensations include seizing up, feeling frozen, shivering, shaking, trembling and sweating. One woman reported that the physical experience of describing the traumatic event is more severe than her feelings were in the actual moment. Some people “feel the pain burn” or are “flooded with feelings” (133). Many feel as though they are reliving their traumatic event when describing it.


An issue with traumatic memories is the quality and reliability of them. Some individuals believe there are no gaps in their memory, and that their memory is completely reliable. These same individuals feel as though their memory in general has diminished. They feel as though they cannot remember new things because their memory is completely clogged with the traumatic experience. Others say they remember the tragedy strongly, but then moments later report having amnesia regarding that event, or as having “a total black out” (136). Ataria concluded that traumatic memories have several deficits including: confusion, the feeling that it happened to someone else, lack of retrieval of details, and the tendency to make up lost details.

Sadly, many of these interviewees felt that this traumatic experience defined them.


Ataria found that even if the traumatic memory itself is poorly recalled, the experience leaves a scar on the bodily level. Regardless of the details the individuals can remember, the bodily experience and feelings associated with that experience never go away. Another blog post, “Power of Emotions on Memory” amplifies how emotions stay with us. Though in this article the author talks about how negative memory feelings fade, while positive memory feelings remained with us, there is a basic principle that the feeling at the time of an event is vitally important.


So, clearly not everyone experiences something traumatic in his or her life. How does this relate to the average person? Well, it shows that even if we cannot remember specific details about an event, the way we feel often stays with us.


To read the study, click here. 




Yochai, A. (2014). Traumatic Memories as Black Holes: A Qualitative-Phenomenological Approach. Qualitative Psychology, 1, 123-140.




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  1. December 3rd, 2014 at 00:25 | #1

    The blog post suggests that memory distortion for traumatic events are due to “negative memory feelings fading” i.e. (from how I understood it,) due to transience of the original memory.
    However, I read another blog post (“The Power of Suggestion and Emotion on Our (False) Memories.”) on false memory that could provide a different explanation for this occurrence. The post stated that: in situations where high levels of negative emotions are aroused, people tend to focus on the “central information” and remember it better than “peripheral information,” which could be unaffected or even impaired. The author of the blog post also relates it to the Evolutionary account (that memory provides a survival advantage) and attention, and says that it is advantageous for survival when attention resources are allocated to focus on the central information, while inhibiting the peripheral.

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