Friday, Sept. 12, 2014

University of New Orleans Study Finds Children's Katrina Memories Faded After Hurricane Gustav

A new study authored by a University of New Orleans psychologist finds that schoolchildren's memories of Hurricane Katrina faded after they lived through Hurricane Gustav. In a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, researchers found that memories of traumatic events in childhood fade after experiencing a similar but less stressful event. The research was led by Carl Weems, UNO professor of psychology.

"This is a fairly substantial first-of-its kind finding," Weems said. "We were able to confirm a promising line of laboratory research that suggests there may be an adaptive alteration of memories for traumatic events. That means when we experience similar events, in a less stressful way, our minds may re-interpret the past in a more positive light."

The theory of these changes in memory is called reconsolidation but, until now, it had not been tested outside the lab for traumatic events. Weems and his colleagues studied New Orleans schoolchildren who lived through Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall Aug. 29, 2005, and Hurricane Gustav, which made landfall along the Louisiana coast Aug. 31, 2008, and prompted an evacuation of three million people in the region.

Researchers found that Katrina disaster memories were initially very consistent, regardless of the child's age or gender. After Gustav, those with negative Gustav experiences showed more stability in their Katrina memories. However those with relatively positive Gustav experiences showed a decrease in the number of Katrina events they reported experiencing. In essence, those with the more positive Gustav experience had diminished Katrina memories.

"Forgetting negative aspects of past similar events may be adaptive in this context because, unlike during Katrina, the evacuation for Gustav was relatively successful, the levees held and the New Orleans area was significantly less damaged than during Katrina," Weems said.

The findings suggest that while researchers can be confident that youth are reliable reporters of their experiences after a disaster, they also suggest the importance of subsequent events, and provide the first real-world validation of reconsolidation theory applied to traumatic stress, according to Weems.


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To view the abstract of the article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, click here

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