Memory in Dissociative Individuals

Some people tend to be drawn to the fantasy land of a book or a movie for a wild adventure; others occasionally forget whether they have washed their hair with shampoo already during shower. It is not uncommon to have non-clinical dissociative experience in healthy population, and how much one is prone to these experiences differs among individuals.

There are two known distinctive responses to trauma: flashback or forgetting of stressful events. Knowing how people with different proneness to dissociation perform in memory tasks would help us understand the mechanism behind individual differences in response to traumatic events.

Prof. Chui-de Chiu from Department of Psychology in CUHK conducted an experiment to probe into the memory performance of non-clinical individuals with different levels of dissociative proneness. Participants first performed a running span task, in which they needed to remember the last first words appeared on the screen among a list of words. The words were positive, negative, or neutral in emotion. Afterwards, they entered a recognition task, in which they were shown either a new word or an old one from the previous task, and had to indicate whether they had seen the word.

Consistent with previous studies, participants with higher dissociative proneness remembered more target items (i.e., the last four word) than the other groups in running-span task. Surprisingly, they also performed better to neutral and negative non-target words (i.e., the words which they did not have to remember in the running span task) in the recognition task than the target words. Prof. Chiu explained the results by a superior cognitive disengagement in dissociative individuals. Disengaging the distractor, individuals with high dissociative proneness did not need to employ inhibitory mechanism to suppress the non-target words, making the non-target words more readily available later in the recognition task.


Chiu, C. (2018). Enhanced accessibility of ignored neutral and negative items in nonclinical dissociative individuals. Consciousness and Cognition, 57(November 2017), 74–83.

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