Skip to main content

Looking at it from a different angle: The role of viewpoint-dependency in traumatic intrusions.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - TRAUMA_CONTEXT (Looking at it from a different angle: The role of viewpoint-dependency in traumatic intrusions.)

Reporting period: 2018-04-01 to 2020-03-31

Emotional memories guide our behaviour and are critical for our survival. However, they can become dysfunctional and contribute to the development of mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), characterized by distressing intrusive memories. Although it is well-established that emotional experiences can have a memory-enhancing effect, it is not fully understood when and why emotional memories become maladaptive. According to Dual Representation Theory, intrusive memories arise when spatial representations of the traumatic event are insufficiently allocentric - i.e. independent of one’s viewpoint, coding features relative to each other rather than to the viewer. This project consisted of a series of experimental studies with healthy participants, in which we tested the role of allocentric memory formation in an aversive Virtual Reality (VR) scenario that provokes intrusive memories. VR makes spatial elements and viewpoints fully controllable. We attempted to exploit these possibilities in order to measure and train allocentric memory during and after emotionally challenging experiences, with the ultimate aim of reducing intrusive memories.
Study 1 (N=92) demonstrates that spatial memory is better when tested from the original encoding perspective compared to a shifted viewpoint which requires additional allocentric processing. Better spatial memory was also evident for scene elements that caused higher levels of distress, and among individuals who had superior pre-existing allocentric memory abilities. Replicating and extending these findings, we showed that the VR scenario successfully elicits intrusive memories whether measured in a 3-day intrusion diary (Study 2; N=100) or in a laboratory-based intrusion provocation task (Study 3; N=96). Attempts to manipulate explicit spatial encoding strategies in Studies 2 and 3 were largely unsuccessful in altering objective indices of spatial memory. However, correlational analyses suggested that a stronger subjective focus on spatial relationships may be associated with lower intrusion-related distress. Our findings have implications for the role of spatial memory formation in PTSD and indicate novel avenues for future research, including an allocentric memory training that we are currently developing.
We developed and validated novel VR-based paradigms that provide an entirely new window for experimentation on intrusive memories and their corresponding spatial representations. For example, our methodology allows the precise and flexible measurement of spatial memory of those elements of a scene that later form the content of distressing intrusions. Furthermore, our studies provide novel insights into spatial memory of emotional scene elements and about the strategies that people use to learn information about their spatial surroundings. Based on these insights, we developed a spatial memory training that will serve as a basis for our planned follow-up research. Since the mechanisms behind the development of debilitating traumatic intrusions are still poorly understood, this line of research contributes to a pressing issue by advancing our understanding of trauma-related psychopathology and putting psychobiological theories of PTSD under empirical scrutiny. Clinically, there are clear implications for the potential future diagnostic and prognostic use of cognitive markers in trauma victims. Indeed, we developed an allocentric spatial memory training that might be the basis for an entirely new treatment approach. The insights gained are particularly relevant for high-risk groups, like emergency service personnel or refugees from war zones, likely to develop PTSD.
Overview of the Project's Background and Empirical Approach