A fascinating article in Monday’s NY Times, “Depression May Be Foretold In How We Remember,” reporting recent findings about how memory effects mood, highlighting the phenomenon known as overgenerality. Which is simply the tendency to generalize about one’s experiences, to present a few instances as “all.” A trauma-induced or simply dispositional form of emotional exaggeration that reduces some to perpetual failures or victims and others to enemies or saints. Turns out this tendency, when it leans in the negative direction, can be a reliable predictor of depression. For our purposes, overgenerality might be considered a particularly potent strategy in the justification game – further evidence of the sometimes unconscious ways we attempt to paint ourselves as purely one thing or the other, when the truth is inevitably somewhere in between. As with all methods of self-justification, there’s a black hole effect; the persecutor needs to be fed after all. One might go so far as to say that the whole paradigm is something we need to be saved from, ht TB:
The task given to participants in an Oxford University depression study sounds straightforward. After investigators read them a cue word, they have 30 seconds to recount a single specific memory, meaning an event that lasted less than one day… For “rejected,” one participant answered, “A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with my boss, and my ideas were rejected.” Another said, “My brothers are always talking about going on holiday without me.”
The second answer was wrong — it is not specific, and it refers to something that took place on several occasions. But in studies under way at Oxford and elsewhere, scientists are looking to such failures to gain new insights into the diagnosis and treatment of depression. They are focusing not on what people remember, but how.
The phenomenon is called overgeneral memory, a tendency to recall past events in a broad, vague manner. “It’s an unsung vulnerability factor for unhelpful reactions when things go wrong in life,” said Mark Williams, the clinical psychologist who has been leading the Oxford studies.
Some forgetting is essential for healthy functioning — “If you’re trying to remember where you parked the car at the supermarket, it would be disastrous if all other times you parked the car at the supermarket came to mind,” said Martin Conway, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Leeds in England. But, a chronic tendency to obliterate details has been linked to longer and more intense episodes of depression.
…overgenerality has been found to be prevalent in Bosnian and Serbian teenagers exposed to the traumas of war. “Some people will discover at a certain stage that being overgeneral is a way of dampening emotional effects,” Dr. Hermans said.
But these researchers say problems can arise when overgenerality becomes an inflexible, blanket style. Without detailed memories to draw upon, dispelling a black mood can seem impossible. Patients may remember once having felt happy, but cannot recall specific things that contributed to their happiness, like visiting friends or a favorite restaurant…
Dr. Williams has found that specificity can be increased with training in mindfulness, a form of meditation increasingly popular in combating some types of depression. Subjects are taught to focus on moment-to-moment experiences and to accept their negative thoughts rather than trying to avoid them. It may help by making people more tolerant of negative memories and short-circuit the impulse to escape them, which can lead to overgenerality.
Meditation means that for some, the past is no longer such a heavy burden. “I always tried to forget the past, the very bad past that made me depressed when my husband died,” said Carol Cattley, 76, who attended a mindfulness course here taught by Dr. Williams. “I’m much more interested in it now.”