Cognitive therapists have long spoken of the negative thoughts associated with depression as "distortions." But it turns out something else may be distorted in depressed people — their memories.
Alastair Gee of the Times reports on research suggesting that depressed people are more likely than others to have "overgeneral memory" — that is, to remember vague concepts but not specifics. For instance, one study asked participants to come up with specific memory related to the word "rejected." One correct answer was, "A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with my boss, and my ideas were rejected." One overgeneral one: "My brothers are always talking about going on holiday without me." Gee offered one possible explanation for the link:
Without detailed memories to draw upon, dispelling a black mood can seem impossible. Patients may remember once having felt happy, but cannot recall specific things that contributed to their happiness, like visiting friends or a favorite restaurant.
In December, Meggy Wang wrote about a phenomenon called "phase blindness," her own term for "the inability to feel one phase when in another." She explained,
I had a medication adjustment recently that, fortunately, eliminated most of the troubling symptoms that had been affecting my illness. And, unsurprisingly, I quickly found that I was forgetting how bad it had been. I found myself wondering if it was "really so important" to take that morning dose when I was rushing out the door to work, or, if I'd climbed into bed without remembering to take my nighttime dose, if I really needed to climb out of bed, in my pajamas, and go get the water, grab the three bottles, etc. etc. [...]
Here, the problem is obviously forgetting the — and forgive me for the melodrama of this word — nightmare. Conversely, in the thick of the nightmare, it's hard to remember anything but.
She was writing about her bipolar disorder, but unipolar depression can also include a component of phase blindness — a feeling that happiness might be a place you visited once, but it's sort of hard to imagine it. And if you can't really remember what happiness looked like, how can you get back there? Therapists may be able to lead patients back by helping them concentrate on their immediate experiences — and maybe someday memory tests will be used to help diagnose and treat psychological conditions. For now, the link between memory and depression is yet another reminder of the human mind's capacity to protect and destroy itself, sometimes at the same time.
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