The importance of context: evidence that contextual representations increase intrusive memories

David Pearson, Fiona Ross, Victoria Webster

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)


Background and objectives: Intrusive memories appear to enter consciousness via involuntary rather than deliberate recollection. Some clinical accounts of PTSD seek to explain this phenomenon by making a clear distinction between the encoding of sensory-based and contextual representations. Contextual representations have been claimed to actively reduce intrusions by anchoring encoded perceptual data for an event in memory. The current analogue trauma study examined this hypothesis by manipulating contextual information independently from encoded sensory-perceptual information.

Method: Participants’ viewed images selected from the International Affective Picture System that depicted scenes of violence and bodily injury. Images were viewed either under neutral conditions or paired with contextual information.

Results: Two experiments revealed a significant increase in memory intrusions for images paired with contextual information in comparison to the same images viewed under neutral conditions. In contrast to the observed increase in intrusion frequency there was no effect of contextual representations on voluntary memory for the images. The vividness and emotionality of memory intrusions were also unaffected.

Limitations: The analogue trauma paradigm may fail to replicate the effect of extreme stress on encoding postulated to occur during PTSD.

Conclusions: These findings question the assertion that intrusive memories develop from a lack of integration between sensory-based and contextual representations in memory. Instead it is argued contextual representations play a causal role in increasing the frequency of intrusions by increasing the sensitivity of memory to involuntary retrieval by associated internal and external cues.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)573-580
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry
Issue number1
Early online date23 Jul 2011
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2012


  • intrusive memories
  • analogue trauma
  • post-traumatic stress disorders
  • per-traumatic processing
  • contextual representations


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