June 5, 2000 Most people think of their memory as a continuous tape of personal histories and that the act of remembering requires simply replaying the tape.
But the likelihood of an individual accurately remembering events from childhood is no greater than chance, according to a group of Northwestern University Medical School psychiatrists.
In the June issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Daniel Offer, M.D., and colleagues at Northwestern described a study they conducted to determine how well persons at middle age recalled events and relationships that occurred during adolescence.
The researchers questioned 67 normal, mentally healthy male participants twice -- initially at age 14 and again at age 48 -- regarding family relationships, home environment, dating and sexuality, religion, parental discipline and general activities.
Results of the study showed significant differences between adult memories of adolescence and what was reported during adolescence. The only item that was significantly more accurate dealt with the participant's future ability to earn money in comparison with that of his father.
With one exception -- the importance of having a girlfriend -- items that one would expect to have emotional significance, such as type of discipline and relationships, were not remembered any more accurately than items without emotional overtones.
"It is often said that adolescence is the period in the life cycle that is most difficult to see clearly," Offer said. "Our study of the emotionally laden experience of adolescence as seen through the lens of 48-year-olds demonstrated that this may indeed be so." The study's findings have important implications for psychiatrists and other mental health care professionals who must routinely obtain historical and biographical information from the patient to implement appropriate treatment, Offer said.
"If accurate memory of past events and relationships is no better than chance for normal, mentally healthy individuals, we might expect that the reports of past experiences by people who are currently medically ill, psychologically disturbed or otherwise compromised would be even less accurate," he said.
Offer said that establishing the truth of autobiographical memory, as well as recent memories of mental health care-related issues and treatments, requires evidence from other corroborating sources, such as family members and medical records, to establish the validity of a patient's memories.
Offer's co-authors on this article were Kenneth I. Howard, professor of psychology, Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern; Marjorie Kaiz; and Emily S. Bennett.
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