Here is a special Graduation Party that I planned for my friend, Holly. The theme was “One Smart Cookie” with cookie decorations.
By ALASTAIR GEE
OXFORD, England — 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.
Cues may be positive (“loved”), negative (“heartless”) or neutral (“green”). 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.
Now researchers at Oxford, Northwestern University in Illinois and other universities are conducting studies with thousands of teenagers to determine whether those with overgeneral memory are more likely to develop depression later on. If so, then a seemingly innocuous quirk of memory could help foretell whether someone will experience mental illness.
“Based on everything we know of memory specificity and depression, there’s a good chance we will find these effects,” said Dirk Hermans, a research psychologist at the University of Leuven in Belgium who collaborates with Dr. Williams.
There are already some clues in this direction. In lab experiments Dr. Williams has induced an overgeneral style in subjects by coaching them to recall types of events (“when I drive to work”) rather than specific occasions (“when I drove to work last Saturday”). He found they were suddenly less able to solve problems, suggesting that overgeneral memory is capable of producing one symptom of depression.
And an unusual paper suggests that overgeneral memory is a risk factor for post-traumatic stress disorder. Scientists at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, assessed 46 firefighters during their initial training and again four years later, when all had experienced traumatic events like seeing comrades injured or killed. Those who could not recall the past in specific detail during the first assessment were much likelier to have developed the disorder by the later one.
“People with P.T.S.D. tend to ruminate at a very categorical, general level about how unsafe life is, or how weak I am, or how guilty I am,” said the lead author, Richard Bryant. “If I do that habitually and then I walk into a trauma, probably I’m going to be resorting to that way of thinking and it’s going to set me up for developing P.T.S.D.”
Dr. Williams stumbled across overgeneral memory by chance in the 1980s. He had asked research subjects to write down the memories elicited by certain cues, and when they left the page blank he thought he had given unclear instructions. Soon he began to wonder about the significance of the omissions.
Usually people seeking a particular memory traverse a mental hierarchy, Dr. Williams said. They begin by focusing on a general description (“playing ball with my brother”) and then narrow the search to a specific event (“last Thanksgiving”). Some people stop searching at the level of generality, however and are probably not conscious of having done so.
This is sometimes a helpful response, which is perhaps why overgeneral memory exists in the first place — it can be a useful way to block particular traumatic or painful memories.Researchers at Leuven discovered that students who did poorly on exams and were more specific took longer to recover from the disappointment than those who were more general. The overgeneral students thought less about the details of what happened and so fared better, at least in the short term.
Similarly, overgenerality has been found to be prevalent in Bosnian and Serbian teenagersexposed 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.
“If you’re unhappy and you want to be happy, it’s helpful to have memories that you can navigate through to come up with specific solutions,” Dr. Williams said. “It’s like a safety net.”
Some experts think such insights could also be helpful in treating depression. For example, Spanish researchers have reported that aging patients showed fewer symptoms of depression and hopelessness after they practiced techniques for retrieving detailed memories.
“When we have a disorder like depression, which is so common and so disabling for so many people, we need to increase the tools in our tool kit,” said Susan Mineka, a clinical psychologist working on a study by Northwestern University and the University of California, Los Angeles, that is testing for depression and anxiety risk factors, including overgeneral memory. “If we could change their overgeneral memory, maybe that would help even more people stay better for longer.”
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.”
Naomi: “Some people can climb trees and some people can’t…and I’m one of those people.”
Naomi: “You smell like a busy, busy bee.”
Aaron: “Maybe they were robot birds.”
Naomi: “With lasers shooting out of their eyes!!!”
Naomi: (Watching Toy Story 3) “Why is mom crying? Did she have too many marshmallows today?”
Naomi: (Holding our mini “David” statue) “Well just look at this beautiful creation.”
Pumpkin (our cat) tooted and I was wafting the smell away from my face when Naomi walked quickly walked toward me and took an exaggerated deep breath. She looked at me and said, “I just love the smell of Pumpkin toots.”
Naomi: “Let me tell you about arm regeneration, Mom. Do you know what animals and reptiles have that skill? Because I do.”
Dana: “Wait! What?”
Naomi: “Here…you two should hold hands because you’re so in love.”
Naomi: (Crying) “I’m feeling really complicated right now.”
Naomi: “I want to tell you something.” (She says this all day…before every thought.)
Dana: “I want to hear something.”
Naomi: “Is that cool?” (How she finishes every thought these days.)
Naomi: “Mom, I’m not crying. These are just tears like poop tears. You know…when you have to push really hard and tears just come out.” (She was really crying that day and was trying to convince me otherwise).
Naomi: “Pretty please on the sneeze.”
Naomi: “When Pumpkin dies, can I have a bunny and a plastic pink flamingo?”
Naomi: “Why doesn’t our family climb more trees? I think we need to change that…starting right now!!!”
Naomi: “You know how sometimes I get really angry? Well, after anger I feel sad…then silly…then calm…then satisfied.”
Naomi: “And then we will do a yard sale!!!” (What she says after every plan I mention this month.)
When Naomi was a toddler and was learning about the world around her, she would call an object a “goo-dee-guy” if she didn’t know the name for it. Recently, she switched her word to “pooh-ba-loo”. When she said it the first time, I asked her what a “pooh-ba-loo” was. She looked at me and said, “Mom, pooh-ba-loo is the new goo-dee-guy.”
I had to take Naomi to the ENT a few weeks ago. She informed me that she really needed to talk to the doctor in private. I explained to her that I needed to be in the room so I could talk to the doctor about her ears. Naomi said I could remain in the waiting room with her, but she wanted to talk to the doctor first. I was intrigued and waited until he walked in. As soon as Dr. Olds opened the door, Naomi looked him square in the face and said, “I think I have dirtatitis.” He asked her to explain what that was and he would let her know if she was right. She said, “Well, it’s when dirt gets up in your nose and you can’t smell or breathe anymore.” He laughed and told her that he had never heard of dirtatitis and that he would look into it.
Naomi: “Auntie Gee. Did you know you are really kind to children and animals?” (Auntie Gee is my sister Danise…and Naomi yelled this to her randomly while she was playing the back yard and Danise was making lunch in the kitchen).
Naomi: “Mom, I’m spreading the word.”
Dana: “About what?”
Naomi: “That we give ‘nugga-nuggas’ in this house.” (Nugga-nuggas are when we nuzzle our foreheads together.)
Aaron: “How do you know the difference between a boy frog and a girl frog?”
Naomi: “The girls have long eyelashes.”
Naomi: “My foot is very strong for how small it is.”
I was doing my algebra homework when Naomi looked at the book and said, “Are you learning Chinese words?”
Naomi: “I’m not crying, mom. Tears are just coming out of my eyes and I’m making crying noises. But I’m not actually crying.”
Naomi: “Is that my pink pen. I’m so attracted to it right now.”
Naomi: “I have five stomachs that can’t have soda…and one secret stomach that can have soda in it.”
We were standing in line with Naomi and she turned around and said (in a rather loud voice), “I really don’t like standing behind people’s butts.”
When Aaron goes to work, Naomi likes to call it his “workshop” instead of his “office”.
Naomi: “My poops are hard to get out today. QUICK!!! I need to drink water to help push them out!!!”
Naomi: “I’m full but my stomach has a little room right here for cookie dough.”
Naomi: “I don’t like it when your hair is in a ponytail. Because that means you didn’t take a shower and you’re having a grumpy kind of day.”
When Aaron is in a meeting at work, he will generally stand up and tilt his computer monitor up. Naomi will ask me if she can see him during the day, and I will remind her that she can’t interrupt him when he is in a meeting. She walked into his office the other day and started talking to him. Aaron politely told her that he was in a meeting and she said, “But dad…you’re not standing!!!” I guess his co-workers thought it was hilarious and laughed for a while after she left.
Naomi: “I really love the color pink.”
Aaron: “What about the other colors?”
Naomi. “It’s kind of complicated with the other ones, dad.”
Naomi: “I like the word ‘poofin’.”
Dana: “You realize it’s pronounced ‘puff-in’, right?”
Naomi: “But the word ‘puffin’ makes my mouth tired and then I want to fall asleep.”
(She the proceeded to say puffin over and over and slowly fell asleep…and then said poofin and started to wake-up. Hilarious.)
(We like to talk about names we like when we watch the credits after a movie.)
Dana: “What do you think about the name Glenna, Glenda, Ellen and Lenore?”
Naomi: “You know what name sounds perfect? Naomi Johnson. Naomi Johnson get over here. Naomi Johnson get down from there. Naomi Johnson where are you? See. No matter how you say it it just sounds great.” (Liam’s last name is Johnson. Despite my constant reminder that she is only 4 years old and that marriage is grown-up talk, she’s convinced they are going to get married.)
In my meditations this week, I was reflecting on the fact that there are two sides to every coin…two sides to every situation. On one side, we can choose to only see the good things and pretend like everything is sunshine and roses. Or we can focus on the negative, depressing side of life and fill every corner with darkness and dread.
I’ve had moments when I’ve swung from one side to the other (from only negative to only positive). However, by nature, I’m a realist, so it doesn’t take much effort to see both sides of a situation. The last three months have presented a plethora of opportunities for extreme highs and lows. I thought it would be a good idea to capture them in one location.
- Good: Aaron applied for a programming position at District 81 and was offered a job this week. We are beyond excited for what this means for our family!!!
- Bad: Aaron has worked 11-1/2 years for his current employer (and most of that time at home in his pajamas). He will really miss is co-workers and clients that have become a part of his life the past decade. Also, Aaron will have to buy business casual, wrinkle-free clothes and leave the house everyday for work. We are going to miss him like something fierce. It will definitely be a big adjustment around here.
- Good: I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in January. This diagnosis has changed my life (I feel better than I ever have before)!!! Now that I’m not sick all the time, I thought it would be a good time to go back to school and work towards my Masters in Accounting. I love school and learning. It’s an amazing feeling finally work on a dream that I’ve been pinning over for 9 years nows. As a bonus, I received enough scholarships and grants to go to school for free for the next 2-3 years at Spokane Community College. My family is super supportive and continues to cheer me on when I have a ton of school work to do.
- Bad: I will be in school forever!!! For the time being, it seems as though school and homework have soaked up my spare time. I’ve had to sacrifice sleep and any sort of social schedule for school. I also have less time with my husband and daughter. I hope this changes next quarter (the summer quarter is 6 weeks long…which is half the time to finish a class compared to the other three quarters during the year).
- Good: This girl is totally brilliant and hilarious. She is starting Pre-K in the fall and is already ahead in math. She has been asking me to teach her how to read lately and would just color, paint or watch movies all day if I let her.
- Bad: We’ve had a lot of changes the last three months. Her ability to negotiate and throw tantrums have moved from “amateur” to “record-breaking Olympic champion”. I’ve had to bring out a wooden spoon as a tactic to remain the boss around here. We’ve also done a lot of cuddling, crying and breathing together. It’s a lot of work managing her emotions.
- Good: Our dear 61 year old friend, Jerry, has been living with us for a year and a half now. (This is the second time he’s lived with us in the last 5 years.) He brings a whole new level of entertainment and hilarity to The Kangas Commune. Naomi thinks he’s the “bees knees”, and she is now convinced presents and candy rain down from heaven as soon as he arrived.
- Bad: Presents and candy thwart my parenting tactics. I hate being the bad guy all the time. Also, Jerry has had lots of health issues that we’ve had to weather with him. They have all turned out okay in the end, but there’s nothing like the word cancer to ruin your week.
- Good: After a long two and a half years, my sister called and said she was leaving her abusive boyfriend and needed a place to stay. She tried one house and quickly realized that it was not a good fit for what she needed. We decided she should live with us, and we spent a few days retrofitting a door for the toy room upstairs. Finally, my sister has a place to call “home”. It’s been nice having her around the last few weeks.
- Bad: It’s always an adjustment when someone moves into The Kangas Commune. I’m the one to explain rules and common courtesies. I also have to be the bad guy when something is not working. Also, Naomi wants to be with my sister 24/7. Naomi has managed to break my little mommy heart more than once with her rejection the last few weeks. We’ve had to instill lots of new boundaries and rules…which has been matched with unprecedented disapproval from Naomi. It’s not my sister’s fault that she is so awesome. We’ve also realized that we have some VERY dysfunctional extended family dynamics that we need to work through. Relationships are really important to us, but sometimes they can be exhausting. It makes me realize how much grace needs to cover everything.
- Good: I love my home. I’m amazed at how God keeps expanding our square footage so we can fit more people under one roof. I’m thankful for parents that can help us with projects around the house so we can save money. And I’m grateful that God provides for just the right amount every time…not too much or too little.
- Bad: With four adults and one child, my house is in a constant state of disarray that makes me feel internally stressed. Our water heater exploded and made a huge mess in the basement. We also had a plague of ants, bees, spiders, flies and maggots. We bug bombed this last weekend and are still wiping down everything and sanitizing the house. And, in a moment of insanity, we decided to start three different landscaping projects at the same time. One day at a time. One step at a time.
- Good: It seems weird to reflect on the good side of a miscarriage. However, now that I’ve had three miscarriages in two years, my OB-GYN is going to start running tests to see what’s going on. My insurance won’t see it as an “infertility” issue (because we have one child already and they said I had to have three miscarriages before they would consider it a health issue). I go in today to start some testing and to talk to the doctor about my “next steps”.
- Bad: Yah. I could go on and on about the bad side of a miscarriage. I am sad. I am grieving. It does get easier each time. I don’t feel as hopeless or sad. I was only 6 weeks this time (and 12 weeks the other two times), so I didn’t have a lot of time to be excited about this pregnancy. I started selling all my baby items 6 months ago. I was tired of having things in my house that caused emotional waste. I can always buy more baby things if I ever get pregnant again. In the mean time, I want to live in the reality that my daughter is getting older and needs my heart to be present with her…and not pinning after something that may never happen.