Memories that don't morph

  • December 7, 2009
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Edvard Munch, "The Scream"

Many Holocaust survivors and escapees suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition characterized by intense fear, helplessness, or horror. PTSD is rooted in exposure earlier in life to extremely stressful life-threatening experiences.

For healthy people, memories are recalled as stories that change over time and do not evoke intense emotions and sensations. But those who suffer with PTSD relive the experience in the present and feel as if the trauma is happening all over again.

Maya Lazarus, a facilitator of Holocaust survivor support groups, says she sees survivors reliving the Holocaust through PTSD. To reduce triggers, some Jewish nursing homes have renovated showers to look less like the survivor’s horrifying memories of gas chambers. Still, Lazarus says, survivors hoard bread. “Food,” she says, “is always an issue because they were once starving.”

How is memory different for those who process trauma and those stuck in PTSD? The Grant study, which followed 200 Harvard undergraduates in the classes of 1939 through 1944 over a 45-year period, looked into that question by comparing how men who served in World War II reported their experiences immediately after the war and how they recalled the events 45 years later.

What the study found is that the men who did not have PTSD had altered their original accounts, diluting the horror of the events. But those who had PTSD still felt the full fear and pain of their earlier experiences. Their memories did not change or fade with time.

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