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Involuntary Memories and Depression


May. 5, 2022 Psychology Today

Have you ever been for a walk or a cycle and suddenly had memories of your past popping up in your mind? Tried to get some work done but found yourself constantly distracted by unintentional memories of past events? Or suddenly been flooded by memories while doing the dishes? These spontaneous memories that seem to arise from the blue are often referred to as involuntary memories, and most people experience them quite often in everyday life. Because these memories can have quite an impact on mood, they have also become an increasingly hot topic among researchers studying depression. So let’s have a close look at what exactly involuntary memories are, and the role they play in depression.

1. Involuntary Memories Seem to Arise Out of the Blue

Involuntary memories pop up in our minds spontaneously and without any deliberate effort to think about a personal past event. In that way, they differ from memories that we think about voluntarily or intentionally, such as when we reminisce about a holiday with a friend or try to remember what we did for our birthday last year. Unlike voluntary memories, which are typically experienced as deliberate and effortful, involuntary memories are normally experienced as sudden and unexpected.

Because of this sudden and unexpected nature, it can often feel like involuntary memories arise out of the blue. However, if we take a closer look at their content, we might realize that they relate to cues in our environment or to our own thoughts or feelings in some way. For example, on a summer day, we might spontaneously start thinking about a sunny day in the past when we went to the beach with friends. Or, if we are feeling happy or sad, this might evoke memories of past events when we felt happy or sad. So, although involuntary memories feel like they arise out of nowhere, they are, in fact, evoked by cues in our current situation or environment.

2. Involuntary Memories Often Refer to Specific Events

Involuntary memories also differ from voluntary memories in that they more often refer to specific events, such as a lunch date you had last week, as opposed to more general descriptions of repeated events, such going to yoga class on Monday mornings, or events that stretch over an extended period of time, such as traveling by train through Europe last summer. In addition, some research suggests that involuntary memories are higher on characteristics such as clarity, vividness, relevance to current life situation, and personal importance. Researchers believe that this may be because past events that provide a distinctive match with our current environment, thoughts, or feelings, or grab our attention due to factors such as vividness or importance are more likely to spontaneously come to mind than memories that are less attention-grabbing or do not provide a distinctive match with our current situation or surroundings.

3. Involuntary Memories Can Have a Large Impact on Mood

Involuntary memories also differ from voluntary memories in the way they impact our mood and emotions. Compared to voluntary memories, involuntary memories more often cause physical reactions such as smiling or crying. They also more often have an impact on mood, especially negative mood. Researchers believe that one possible reason for this may be that involuntary memories arise so suddenly that it may be difficult to prepare for and engage in effective emotion regulation when they come to mind. Emotion regulation refers to different strategies that people use to manage their emotional experiences, some of which are more effective than others in reducing negative emotions and mood.

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