Self-Defining Memories Help People with Depression, Bipolar Disorder

Having those with depression or bipolar disorder recall positive memories about themselves can help in their recovery.

It is common to hear people complain that they are “lost in life,” don’t seem to know who they are anymore, or generally lack a sense of purpose. For people living with depression or bipolar disorder, there is evidence that disturbances, which are deep rooted in their memories from their past, can play a large part in explaining such identity problems.

According to a 2004 study by Blagov and Singer,1 these disturbances are often due to a phenomena known as “overgeneralization bias,” which is the tendency to recall fewer specific memories than general ones. “Mood congruence bias,” which is the propensity to recall less positive memories than negative ones, also plays a role. People with depression or bipolar disorder tend to have difficulty remembering specific and positive memories.

The retrieval of self-defining memories (SDM) can be particularly problematic for people with depression or bipolar disorder. SDMs are crystallizations of links between memory and identity and form a special component of autobiographical recollection. Blagov and Singer referred to SDMs as vivid, emotionally intense and well-rehearsed autobiographical memories. Essentially, SDMs are memories that tell someone what kind of person they are, and serve as a reminder of how and why they came to be that person.

Aurelie Wagener, MS, Marie Boulanger, PhD and Sylvie Blairy, PhD, all of the University of Liege in Belgium, presented a study during last month’s British Psychological Society Annual Conference, which was held in Liverpool, United Kingdom.2

The study compared the characteristics of SDMs between depressed patients, bipolar patients, and healthy subjects. The authors didn’t confirm the presence of overgeneralization bias among patients with depression or bipolar disorder, meaning there were no notable disturbances in terms of the specificity of their SDMs. There was also no evidence of contamination, where memories with a positive past construction are ‘contaminated’ or recalled within a negative present context.

It was found, however, that mood congruence bias is present in the SDMs of depressed patients. According to Wagener, “They tend to recall more memories with a negative emotional valence than memories with a positive one.” It was also found that depressed and bipolar patients recall fewer SDMs, with a genuine meaning-making component, compared to healthy subjects.

“Meaning-making can be conceptualized as the capacity to evoke a lesson learned about oneself, another or the world due to the SDMs,” explained Wagener.