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UBC Theses and Dissertations

How childhood adversity relates to associative memory for emotional stimuli Wardell, Victoria


Binding content together in memory (i.e., associative memory) is impaired by the presence of negative stimuli, limiting the contextualization of negative content in memory. Adults exposed to adverse childhood experiences show heightened emotional reactivity that may influence memory for emotional content. Here, we sought to elucidate whether adverse childhood experiences moderate the impairing effect of emotion on associative memory. As part of an online study, participants (N=700) self-reported exposure to childhood adversity. Participants were presented with images stratified by emotion (negative, neutral) alongside a paired image of a benign object. After a 24-hour delay, participants’ associative memory for image pairs was tested. A mixed linear model was used to test the hypothesis that greater exposure to adverse childhood experiences would be associated with poorer associative memory for negative images. Contrary to our prediction, exposure to adversity in childhood was not associated with poorer associative memory, regardless of the emotionality of the stimuli. Exploratory analyses revealed that current psychological well-being did not influence the pattern of results. These findings indicate that exposure to adverse experiences in childhood is not always related to one’s ability to bind content together in memory, at least as measured in the current study, contrary to prominent theories positing that disruption to associative memory drives mental health concerns associated with childhood adversity.

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