Threat of Death and Autobiographical Memory Academic Article uri icon

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  • We investigated autobiographical memory in a group of passengers onboard a transatlantic flight that nearly ditched at sea. The consistency of traumatic exposure across passengers, some of whom developed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), provided a unique opportunity to assess verified memory for life-threatening trauma. Using the Autobiographical Interview, which separates episodic from nonepisodic details, passengers and healthy controls (HCs) recalled three events: the airline disaster (or a highly negative event for HCs), the September 11, 2001, attacks, and a nonemotional event. All passengers showed robust mnemonic enhancement for episodic details of the airline disaster. Although neither richness nor accuracy of traumatic recollection was related to PTSD, production of nonepisodic details for traumatic and nontraumatic events was elevated in PTSD passengers. These findings indicate a robust mnemonic enhancement for trauma that is not specific to PTSD. Rather, PTSD is associated with altered cognitive control operations that affect autobiographical memory in general.


  • McKinnon, Margaret
  • Palombo, Daniela J
  • Nazarov, Anthony
  • Kumar, Namita
  • Khuu, Wayne
  • Levine, Brian

publication date

  • July 2015