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Using our memory to overcome depression

Psychologists are becoming increasingly interested in a particular category of memories known as self-defining memories, which, as the name suggests, are assumed to be a true reflection of the self and all its values, objectives and beliefs. In an article recently published in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Belgica, four researchers from the University of Liege highlight the clinical interest of such memories in the treatment of patients suffering from unipolar depressive disorder. Today, many authors recommend developing therapies based on self-defining memories. Allowing these memories to emerge should make it possible to gain access to the types of feelings involved in depressive brooding, which is a frequent characteristic of the depressed state. Dealing with this type of brooding constitutes a valuable therapeutic option.

souvenir soiThere is a particular type of memory known as autobiographical memory, which is necessary for the maintenance of a sense of self-identity and self-continuity through time. This type of memory allows us to store and develop awareness of all personal information relating to our past.  To this extent, it defines a continuum, the extremities of which, on one hand, are composed of phenomenologically rich and detailed events that have been personally experienced in a given spatial and temporal context; the domain of episodic memories, and, on the other hand, general knowledge on? the self – name, age, profession, aptitude, tastes etc.; the domain of semantic memory. Autobiographical memory, therefore, involves two types of perception so that the preponderant nature (episodic or semantic) of each autobiographical memory depends on different parameters, such as, for example, the age of the memory concerned (if it is recent, its episodic aspect will be stronger) or the frequency at which it is repeated (if it is often repeated, it will tend to be semantic).

The sense? of self-continuity presupposes a permanent and consistent representation of the self in the past, present and future. According to the theory initiated in 2005 by Martin Conway of the University of Bristol, autobiographical memory is of fundamental significance for the self in that it allows us to not only integrate personal information relating to our past and present, but also to project ourselves into the future.

As Professor Martial Van der Linden, head of the psychopathology and neuropsychology units of the Universities of Geneva and Liege, points out, one of the key functions of autobiographical memory is to keep a long-term stable and coherent track of our interactions with the world, that is to say, our values, beliefs and objectives. Because the past and the present clarify the future, it is by means of these elements that we can represent ourselves in the future.

Memories with a high added value

In the Cognitive and Behavioural Clinical Psychology Unit of the University of Liege (ULg), doctoral student Aurélie Wagener, lecturer Marie Boulanger, and professor Sylvie Blairy, president of the University Psychology and Logopedics Clinic, are focussing their attention on a particular category of autobiographical memories: ‘self-defining memories’, a concept introduced in 1993 by the American psychologists Jefferson Singer and Peter Salovey (1). What are self-defining memories exactly? They are autobiographical memories which can be said to accurately characterise an individual and they make it possible to define and explain who that individual really is. Often recollected, they provide a direct link with a persistent preoccupation or unresolved conflict and they reveal the values, objectives and beliefs that an individual holds. According to Martial Van der Linden, they are the crystallization of the links between identity, consciousness and memory.

In an article (2) recently published in Acta Psychiatrica Belgica, Aurélie Wagener, who is first author, Marie Boulanger, Professor Sylvie Blairy and Professor William Pitchot, of the Psychiatry and Medical Psychology Department of ULg, remind us that Singer describes self-defining memories as “selective recordings of the most important events in our lives”. The following is an example: “I was 12 years old when my father brought me to the planetarium at the Palais de la Découverte in Paris. When I saw the representation of the heavenly vault, I was fascinated and knew then that I was destined to become an astrophysicist”. Another example: “Each time I visited my grandparents, I saw them argue. I knew then that married life was not for me, that nothing could be better than freedom even if loneliness was the price to be paid for that freedom”.

Four dimensions

There are four dimensions for evaluating self-defining memories. The first of these is specificity.  In fact, self-defining memories can refer to a clearly-defined event (the birth of my son…), a period of life (my studies in Australia…) or they could refer to an event that is identically repeated in time (the lunches I had with my boss every Wednesday…). The second dimension is evidently content which can result in stress that can be identified by the expression of uneasiness, disagreement or discomfort as felt by one of the protagonists involved in the reported event.

(1) Singer J. and Salovey P., The remembered self: Emotion and memory in personality, New York: Free Press, 1993.
(2) Wagener A., Boulanger M., Pitchot W. & Blairy S., self-defining memories in major unipolar depression: why refer to them during clinical treatment? Acta Psychiatrica Belgica, n° 116/2, 27-35, 2015.

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