Concrete thinking may reduce the power of traumatic memories

  • Focusing on concrete details when experiencing a traumatic event may, oddly enough, protect you more from the power of those memories, than if you tried to distance yourself from what you are experiencing.

Can you help protect yourself from the memory of traumatic events? A new study suggests that, by concentrating on concrete details as you live through the event, you can reduce the number of intrusive memories later experienced.

The study, aimed particularly at those who deliberately expose themselves to the risk of PTSD (e.g., emergency workers, military personnel, journalists in conflict zones), involved 50 volunteers who rated their mood before watching several films with traumatic scenes. After the first film, they rated their feelings. For the next four films, half the participants were asked to consider abstract questions, such as why such situations happened. The other half were asked to consider concrete questions, such as what they could see and hear and what needed to be done from that point. Afterward, they gave another rating on their mood. Finally, they were asked to watch a final film in the same way as they had practiced, rating feelings of distress and horror as they had for the first film.

The volunteers were then given a diary to record intrusive memories of anything they had seen in the films for the next week.

Both groups, unsurprisingly, saw their mood decline after the films, but those who had been practicing concrete thinking were less affected, and also experienced less intense feelings of distress and horror when watching the final film. Abstract thinkers experienced nearly twice as many intrusive memories in the following week.

The study follows previous findings that emergency workers who adopted an abstract processing approach showed poorer coping, and that those who processed negative events using abstract thinking experienced a longer period of low mood, compared to those using concrete thinking.

Further study to confirm this finding is of course needed in real-life situations, but this does suggest a strategy that people who regularly experience trauma could try. It is particularly intriguing because, on the face of it, it would seem like quite the wrong strategy. Distancing yourself from the trauma you're experiencing, trying to see it as something less real, seems a more obvious coping strategy. This study suggests it is exactly the wrong thing to do.

It also seems likely that this tendency to use concrete or abstract processing may reflect a more general trait. Self-reported proneness to intrusive memories in everyday life was significantly correlated with intrusive memories of the films. Perhaps we should all think about the way we view the world, and those of us who tend to take a more abstract approach should try paying more attention to concrete details. This is, after all, something I've been recommending in the context of fighting sensory impairment and age-related cognitive decline!

Abstract thinking certainly has its place, but as I've said before, we need flexibility. Effective cognitive management is about tailoring your style of thinking to the task's demands.


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More evidence that stress increases risk of Alzheimer's

  • A stress hormone has been found to be associated with more amyloid-beta protein, in mice and human neurons.
  • The finding helps explain why stress is a risk factor for Alzheimer's.
  • A previous 38-year study supports this with the finding that women who scored highly in "neuroticism" in middle age, had a greater chance of later developing Alzheimer's.
  • This link was largely accounted for by chronic stress experienced by these women over the four decades.

A study involving both mice and human cells adds to evidence that stress is a risk factor for Alzheimer's.

The study found that mice who were subjected to acute stress had more amyloid-beta protein in their brains than a control group. Moreover, they had more of a specific form of the protein, one that has a particularly pernicious role in the development of Alzheimer's disease.

When human neurons were treated with the stress hormone corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF), there was also a significant increase in the amyloid proteins.

It appears that CRF causes the enzyme gamma secretase to increase its activity. This produces more amyloid-beta.

The finding supports the idea that reducing stress is one part of reducing your risk of developing Alzheimer's.

A neurotic personality increases the risk of Alzheimer's disease

An interesting study last year supports this.

The study, involving 800 women who were followed up some 40 years after taking a personality test, found that women who scored highly in "neuroticism" in middle age, have a greater chance of later developing Alzheimer's. People who have a tendency to neuroticism are more readily worried, distressed, and experience mood swings. They often have difficulty in managing stress.

The women, aged 38 to 54, were first tested in 1968, with subsequent examinations in 1974, 1980, 1992, 2000, and 2005. Neuroticism and extraversion were assessed in 1968 using the Eysenck Personality Inventory. The women were asked whether they had experienced long periods of high stress at each follow-up.

Over the 38 years, 153 developed dementia (19%), of whom 104 were diagnosed with Alzheimer's (13% of total; 68% of those with dementia).

A greater degree of neuroticism in midlife was associated with a higher risk of Alzheimer's and long-standing stress. This distress accounted for a lot of the link between neuroticism and Alzheimer's.

Extraversion, while associated with less chronic stress, didn't affect Alzheimer's risk. However, high neuroticism/low extraversion (shy women who are easily worried) was associated with the highest risk of Alzheimer's.

The finding supports the idea that long periods of stress increase the risk of Alzheimer's, and points to people with neurotic tendencies, who are more sensitive to stress, as being particularly vulnerable.



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High stress in middle age may increase women's risk of dementia

A study that followed 800 Swedish middle-aged women from 1968 to 2005 has found that high levels of stress in middle age increased Alzheimer’s risk by 21% and risk of any dementia by 15%.

Of the 800 women, 425 died during the course of the study while 153 (19%) developed dementia (of whom 104 developed Alzheimer’s), at an average age of 78. The number of stressors and long-standing distress were independently associated with Alzheimer’s.

The finding doesn’t tell us whether stress is contributing to the development of dementia, or whether it is simply an indicator of another underlying risk factor.

The open access paper is available at



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Stress & anxiety

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Short stressful events may improve working memory

We know that chronic stress has a detrimental effect on learning and memory, but a new rat study shows how acute stress (a short, sharp event) can produce a beneficial effect. The rats, trained to a level of 60-70% accuracy on a maze, were put through a 20-minute forced swim before being run through the maze again. Those who experienced this stressful event were better at running the maze 4 hours later, and a day later, than those not forced through the stressful event. It appears that the stress hormone corticosterone (cortisol in humans) increases transmission of the neurotransmitter glutamate in the prefrontal cortex and improves working memory. It also appears that chronic stress suppresses the transmission of glutamate in the prefrontal cortex of male rodents, while estrogen receptors in female rodents make them more resilient to chronic stress than male rats.

[1157] Yuen EY, Liu W, Karatsoreos IN, Feng J, McEwen BS, Yan Z. Acute stress enhances glutamatergic transmission in prefrontal cortex and facilitates working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America [Internet]. 2009 ;106(33):14075 - 14079. Available from:

Stressed brains rely on habit

And another rat study has found that rats stressed repeatedly and unpredictably for three weeks were more likely than unstressed animals to continue performing habitual behaviors, even when it no longer made sense to do so. This behavior was correlated with reductions in the prelimbic cortex of the medial prefrontal cortex and the dorsomedial striatum (both implicated in goal-directed actions), and increases in the size of the dorsolateral striatum (necessary for habit). The finding follows on from previous research showing that habit formation involves a switch between neural circuits associated with goal-directed behavior and those controlling habitual behavior. The findings have implications for therapies for stress-related disorders and addictive behavior.

[517] Dias-Ferreira E, Sousa JC, Melo I, Morgado P, Mesquita AR, Cerqueira JJ, Costa RM, Sousa N. Chronic Stress Causes Frontostriatal Reorganization and Affects Decision-Making. Science [Internet]. 2009 ;325(5940):621 - 625. Available from:

Stress disrupts task-switching, but the brain can bounce back

A new neuroimaging study involving 20 male M.D. candidates in the middle of preparing for their board exams has found that they had a harder time shifting their attention from one task to another after a month of stress than other healthy young men who were not under stress. The finding replicates what has been found in rat studies, and similarly correlates with impaired function in an area of the prefrontal cortex that is involved in attention. However, the brains recovered their function within a month of the end of the stressful period.

[829] Liston C, McEwen BS, Casey BJ. Psychosocial stress reversibly disrupts prefrontal processing and attentional control. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2009 ;106(3):912 - 917. Available from:

Full text available at

Psychological distress, not depression, linked to increased risk of stroke

A study following 20,627 people for an average of 8.5 years has found that psychological distress was associated with an increased risk of stroke and that the risk of stroke increased the more distress the participants reported. This association remained the same regardless of cigarette smoking, systolic blood pressure, overall blood cholesterol, obesity, previous heart attack, diabetes, social class, education, high blood pressure treatment, family history of stroke and recent antidepressant medication use. However, there was no increased risk for people who had experienced an episode of major depression in the past year or at any point in their lifetime.

[1298] Surtees PG, Wainwright NWJ, Luben RN, Wareham NJ, Bingham SA, Khaw K-T. Psychological distress, major depressive disorder, and risk of stroke. Neurology [Internet]. 2008 ;70(10):788 - 794. Available from:

Short-term stress can affect learning and memory

We know that long-lasting, severe stress can impair cell communication in the hippocampus. Now rodent studies have demonstrated that the same outcome can happen with short-term stress. But rather than involving the familiar stress hormone cortisol, acute stress activated corticotropin releasing hormones, which led to the rapid disintegration of dendritic spines in the hippocampus, thus limiting the ability of synapses to collect and store memories.

[981] Chen Y, Dube CM, Rice CJ, Baram TZ. Rapid Loss of Dendritic Spines after Stress Involves Derangement of Spine Dynamics by Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone. J. Neurosci. [Internet]. 2008 ;28(11):2903 - 2911. Available from:

Correct levels of stress hormones boost learning

Although it’s known that cortisol production is related to stress and has an impact on learning in humans, that impact is not well understood, because of the difficulties of controlling cortisol levels in humans. A study using ground squirrels has now found that they learn more quickly if they have a modest amount of cortisol, rather than either high or low levels of cortisol.

[252] Mateo JM. Inverted-U shape relationship between cortisol and learning in ground squirrels. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory [Internet]. 2008 ;89(4):582 - 590. Available from:

Stress hormone impacts memory, learning in diabetic rodents

A rodent study sheds light on why diabetes can impair cognitive function. The study found that increased levels of a stress hormone (called cortisol in humans) in diabetic rats impaired synaptic plasticity and reduced neurogenesis in the hippocampus. When levels returned to normal, the hippocampus recovered. Cortisol production is controlled by the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA). People with poorly controlled diabetes often have an overactive HPA axis and excessive cortisol.

[1050] Stranahan AM, Arumugam TV, Cutler RG, Lee K, Egan JM, Mattson MP. Diabetes impairs hippocampal function through glucocorticoid-mediated effects on new and mature neurons. Nature Neuroscience [Internet]. 2008 ;11(3):309 - 317. Available from:

How stress affects memory

We know stress affects memory. Now a rat study tells us one of the ways it does that. Cell recordings in the hippocampus revealed that, when a mouse moves from one location to another, particular cells fired at each location. When the mouse returned to an earlier location, the same cells fire. However, following stress, the cells that fired in a particular location still fired at the same location, but tended to fire at a different frequency. Stress also reduce the level of LTP at the synapses.

[1295] Kim JJ, Lee HJ, Welday AC, Song EY, Cho J, Sharp PE, Jung MW, Blair HT. Stress-induced alterations in hippocampal plasticity, place cells, and spatial memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2007 ;104(46):18297 - 18302. Available from:

Highly accomplished people more prone to failure than others when under stress

One important difference between those who do well academically and those who don’t is often working memory capacity. Those with a high working memory capacity find it easier to read and understand and reason, than those with a smaller capacity. However, a new study suggests there is a downside. Such people tend to heavily rely on their abundant supply of working memory and are therefore disadvantaged when challenged to solve difficult problems, such as mathematical ones, under pressure — because the distraction caused by stress consumes their working memory. They then fall back on the less accurate short-cuts that people with less adequate supplies of working memory tend to use, such as guessing and estimation. Such methods are not made any worse by working under pressure. In the study involving 100 undergraduates, performance of students with strong working memory declined to the same level as those with more limited working memory, when the students were put under pressure. Those with more limited working memory performed as well under added pressure as they did without the stress.

The findings were presented February 17 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Lifestyle changes improve seniors’ memory surprisingly quickly

A small 14-day study found that those following a memory improvement plan that included memory training, a healthy diet, physical exercise, and stress reduction, showed a 5% decrease in brain metabolism in the dorsal lateral prefrontal region of the brain (involved in working memory) suggesting they were using their brain more efficiently. This change in activity was reflected in better performance on a cognitive measure controlled by this brain region, and participants reported that they felt their memory had improved. The memory training involved doing brainteasers, crossword puzzles and memory exercises. Diet involved eating 5 small meals daily (to prevent fluctuations in blood glucose levels) that were rich in omega-3 fats, low-glycemic index carbohydrates (e.g., whole grains) and antioxidants. Physical exercise involved brisk walking and stretching, and stress reduction involved stretching and relaxation exercises.

The study was presented at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology's Annual Meeting on December 11-15, in Hawaii.

Stress interferes with problem-solving; Beta-blocker may help

New research suggests that an experience as simple as watching graphically violent or emotional scenes in a movie can induce enough stress to interfere with problem-solving abilities, and that a beta-blocker medication could promote the ability to think flexibly under stressful conditions. Neither the stress nor the beta-blocker affected memory. The research not only has implications for understanding the range of effects of stress on thinking, but could also have broader clinical implications for patients with anxiety disorders or substance abuse problems.

Renner, K., Alexander, J., Hillier, A., Smith, R. & Tivarus, M. 2005. Presented at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, D.C.

Early life stress can lead to memory loss and cognitive decline in middle age

Age-related cognitive decline is probably a result of both genetic and environmental factors. A rat study has demonstrated that some of these environmental factors may occur in early life. Among the rats, emotional stress in infancy showed no ill effects by the time the rats reached adulthood, but as the rats reached middle age, cognitive deficits started to appear in those rats who had had stressful infancies, and progressed much more rapidly with age than among those who had had nurturing infancies. Middle-aged rats who had been exposed to early life emotional stress showed deterioration in brain-cell communication in the hippocampus.

[1274] Brunson KL, Kramar E, Lin B, Chen Y, Colgin LL, Yanagihara TK, Lynch G, Baram TZ. Mechanisms of Late-Onset Cognitive Decline after Early-Life Stress. J. Neurosci. [Internet]. 2005 ;25(41):9328 - 9338. Available from:

Stress bad for the brain

A study of older adults for three to six years has found that those with continuous high levels of the stress hormone cortisol performed poorly on memory tests and had a 14% smaller hippocampus. A further study involving young adults and children between the ages of six and fourteen found that even an acute increase in cortisol can lead to reversible memory impairments in young adults, and that children from low socio-economic status environments had higher cortisol levels than those from high SES homes. Children from low SES homes tended to process positive and negative attributes more negatively than children from high SES homes, and this type of processing was significantly related to basal cortisol levels at ages 10, 12 and 14.

[1415] Lupien SJ, Fiocco AJ, Wan N, Maheu F, Lord C, Schramek T, Tu MT. Stress hormones and human memory function across the lifespan. Psychoneuroendocrinology [Internet]. 2005 ;30(3):225 - 242. Available from:

Anxiety adversely affects those who are most likely to succeed at exams

It has been thought that pressure harms performance on cognitive skills such as mathematical problem-solving by reducing the working memory capacity available for skill execution. However, a new study of 93 students has found that this applies only to those high in working memory. It appears that the advantage of a high working memory capacity disappears when that attention capacity is compromised by anxiety.

[355] Beilock SL, Carr TH. When high-powered people fail: working memory and "choking under pressure" in math. Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS [Internet]. 2005 ;16(2):101 - 105. Available from:

Anxiety good for memory recall, bad for solving complex problems

Cognitive tests given to 19 first-year medical students one to two days before a regular classroom exam, and then a week after the exam, found that, before the exam, students were better able to accurately recall a list of memorized numbers, but did less well on tests that required them to consider many possibilities in order to come up with a reasonable answer. A week after the exam, the opposite was true. It is assumed that the difference in results reflects the effects of stress.

Jessa Alexander & David Beversdorf presented their findings on October 25 in San Diego at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference.

Estrogen effect on memory influenced by stress

The question of whether estrogen helps memory and cognition in women has proven surprisingly difficult to answer, with studies giving conflicting results. Now it seems the answer to that confusion is: it depends. And one of the things it depends on may be the level of stress the woman is experiencing. A rat study has found that the performance of female rats in a water maze was affected by the interaction of hormone level (whether the rat was estrous or proestrous) with water temperature (a source of physical stress). Those rats with high hormone levels did better when the water was warm, while those with low hormone levels did better when the water was cold. The researchers suggest both timing and duration of stress might be factors in determining the effect of hormones on cognition.

[384] Rubinow MJ, Arseneau LM, Beverly LJ, Juraska JM. Effect of the Estrous Cycle on Water Maze Acquisition Depends on the Temperature of the Water. Behavioral Neuroscience [Internet]. 2004 ;118(4):863 - 868. Available from:

Stress reactions no guarantee of authenticity

Physical stress reactions have often been taken as evidence for the authenticity of a memory. A recent study investigated people with “memories” of alien abductions (on the grounds that these are the memories least likely to be true) and found that those who believed they had been abducted by aliens responded physically to recall of that memory in the same way as to recall of other, true, stressful events. The finding suggests that a person’s reaction to a memory is no evidence for whether or not it truly happened.

[1161] McNally RJ, Lasko NB, Clancy SA, Macklin ML, Pitman RK, Orr SP. Psychophysiological responding during script-driven imagery in people reporting abduction by space aliens. Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS [Internet]. 2004 ;15(7):493 - 497. Available from:

Stress no aid to memory

Numerous studies have questioned the accuracy of recall of traumatic events, but the research is often dismissed as artificial and not intense enough to simulate real-life trauma. A new study has used real stress: 509 active duty military personnel enrolled in survival school training were deprived of food and sleep 48 hours and then interrogated. A day later, only 30% of those presented with a line-up could identify the right person, only 34% identified their interrogator from a photo-spread and 49% from single photos shown sequentially (putting the interrogator in the same clothing boosted correct identification to 66%). Thirty people even got the gender wrong. Those subjected to physical threats (half the participants) performed worse.

[269] Morgan CA, Hazlett G, Doran A, Garrett S, Hoyt G, Thomas P, Baranoski M, Southwick SM. Accuracy of eyewitness memory for persons encountered during exposure to highly intense stress. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry [Internet]. Submitted ;27(3):265 - 279. Available from:

Anxiety over math blocks learning

The so-called "math block" is notorious - why do we have such a term? Do we talk about a "geography block", or a "physics block"? But we do talk of a reading block. Perhaps the reason for both is the same.
The amount of information you can work with at one time has clear limits, defined by your working memory capacity. When we are anxious, part of our working memory is taken up with our awareness of these fears and worries, leaving less capacity available for processing (which is why students who are very anxious during exams usually perform well below their capabilities). Processes such as reading and working with numbers are very sensitive to working memory capacity because they place such demands on it.
A recently reported study by Mark H. Ashcraft and Elizabeth P. Kirk, both psychologists at Cleveland (Ohio) State University, provides the first solid evidence that, indeed, math-anxious people have working memory problems as they do math.

[2549] Ashcraft MH, Kirk EP. The relationships among working memory, math anxiety, and performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 2001 ;130(2):224 - 237.

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