Trauma and the Brain: How Childhood Experiences Affect Your Memory

Madison Bishop (Author) and Alice Xu (Mentor)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019), more than 60 percent of American adults have experienced at least one damaging or “traumatic” experience during childhood. Childhood trauma is defined as serious adverse events that children experience and usually involves those that are dangerous, violent, or life-threatening (Peterson, 2018). These experiences often result in negative lasting mental and physical effects on the child, such as difficulty in managing emotions, dissociation, drastic changes in behavior, and issues with cognition. This article will specifically focus on the profound effect of these traumatic childhood experiences on cognition and memory, among other harmful consequences.

Memory Loss

Research suggests that individuals who have experienced childhood trauma are more likely to experience memory retrieval problems, such as dissociative amnesia or memory gaps (Steinberg et al., 1993). Dissociative amnesia occurs when individuals distract or disassociate themselves from the traumatic experience, leading to incoherent autobiographical memory. This disorder is concerning as it inhibits people from remembering information about their lives that may be important, including specific details about traumatic events that are needed for health professionals to provide them with assistance. 

One study investigated this phenomenon by examining how individuals recalled information on childhood experiences and soliciting self-reports of memory deficits (Edwards et al., 2001). The findings showed that participants who had experienced trauma struggled to recall details of their general childhood experience, such as the time, place, and people involved. This disruption in memory retrieval, referred to as autobiographical memory disturbances, is proposed to be attributed to the development of a negative schema in individuals who have experienced trauma (Brewin, 1989). The formation of such a negative schema is shaped by past experiences and expectations of negative life events, which incorporates specific event details into a more abstract representation. Consequently, individuals with these schemas may assimilate even positive experiences into their negative worldview, making it difficult to recall specific events. These studies suggest that individuals affected by trauma may exhibit less detailed and elaborate memories, as well as large memory gaps. 

Working Memory Impairment

In addition to the substantial impact that trauma can have on autobiographical memory, another critical aspect to examine is its effect on working memory. Working memory refers to the temporary retention of information that is readily available for immediate use. It plays a crucial role in our daily lives, such as remembering someone’s name or following a recipe while cooking. Dodaj and colleagues (2017) conducted a study to explore the impact of childhood trauma on working memory. Participants were asked to complete the Child Maltreatment Questionnaire (Karlović et al., 2001) along with the Working Memory Questionnaire, the latter designed to evaluate working memory capacity through tasks that involved recalling verbal, visual, and numerical information (Vallat-Azouvi et al., 2012). The study concluded that individuals who had suffered from abuse showed a reduced working memory capacity compared to those who were not victims of such traumatic experiences. 

Another study further explored the relationship between trauma and working memory, suggesting that the trauma exposure itself, rather than the presence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms, impacts working memory (Blanchette & Caparos, 2016). The researchers assessed trauma exposure using an inventory self-report questionnaire and evaluated PTSD symptoms through self-report questionnaires. Participants’ working memory function was measured through the completion of a running span and reading span task, where they were asked to read a list of words and recall the last few items or read a set of sentences and recall the final word of each. Consistent with previous findings, the study found that trauma-exposed participants displayed significantly lower working memory function in comparison to control participants. Moreover, this association could not be attributed to the presence of PTSD symptoms. 


Past research has highlighted the long-lasting effects of childhood trauma and abuse on memory and other cognitive functions. Understanding the underlying mechanisms is critical for developing effective interventions aimed at improving autobiographical memory and working memory performance. Further research is also needed to better understand the long-term consequences of such experiences and develop therapeutic approaches that can help survivors of childhood trauma improve their mental well-being. For many childhood abuse survivors, without their memories, their experience is silenced. Helping them retrieve these memories and teaching them how to cope with the significant emotional and psychological challenges related to their experiences will empower them to share their stories and feel less isolated.


Blanchette, I., & Caparos, S. (2016). Working memory function is linked to trauma exposure, independently of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 21(6), 494–509. 

Brewin, C. R. (1989). Cognitive change processes in psychotherapy. Psychological Review, 96(3), 379–394. 

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Dodaj, A., Krajina, M., Sesar, K., & Šimić, N. (2017). The Effects of Maltreatment in Childhood on Working Memory Capacity in Adulthood. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 13(4), 618–632. 

Edwards, V. J., Fivush, R., Anda, R. F., Felitti, V. J., & Nordenberg, D. F. (2001). Autobiographical memory disturbances in childhood abuse survivors. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 4(2), 247–263. 

Karlović, A., Buljan-Flander, G., & Vranić, A. (2001). Validity of the Questionnaire for Child Maltreatment. Contemporary Psychology, 4, 93–111.

Peterson, S. (2018, November 5). About Child Trauma. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Retrieved from 

Steinberg, M., Cicchetti, D., Buchanan, J., Hall, P., et al. (1993). Clinical assessment of dissociative symptoms and disorders: The Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV Dissociative Disorders (SCID-D). Dissociation: Progress in the Dissociative Disorders, 6(1), 3–15.

Vallat-Azouvi, C., Pradat-Diehl, P., & Azouvi, P. (2012). The Working Memory Questionnaire: A scale to assess everyday life problems related to deficits of working memory in brain injured patients. Neuropsychological Rehabilitation, 22(4), 634–649.