Gone but not forgotten: exploring autobiographical memory of pain events

Research output: Contribution to conferencePosterpeer-review


Introduction/Aim A prompt, provided to encourage recall, is known as a cue and can improve memory (Tulving and Pearlstone, 1966). Episodic retrieval cues such as feature cues involve parts of the memory itself and work better if the cue has personal relevance for an individual (Bellezza, 1992). Therefore providing a cue about a specific event, which an individual has experienced, should increase recall of that event. However, according to Wagenaar (1986) people have a tendency to repress unpleasant events. It therefore remains to be seen the extent to which pain events can be recalled and are subject to the effect of cuing. Additionally, the intensity of a pain may have an influence upon its memorability as highly painful events such as childbirth, may be recalled more efficiently than mild ones (Niven & Brodie, 1996). The aim of this study was to ascertain the number of pain events experienced in the last year able to be recalled by subjects with and without cuing as a function of pain intensity. Method An experimental design was utilised with the dependent variables the number of cued and uncued pain events recalled and their intensity. Using a semi structured questionnaire 100 females and 45 males (mean age 40.66 years) reported the pain events and their intensity they had experienced in the last year firstly without any cue then cued by a list the most commonly experienced everday pain events. Results Repeated measures analysis of variance demonstrated a main effect for cuing, [F (1,143) = 113.893, p < 0.001] with a mean recall of 2.78 uncued and 5.06 cued pain events. There was also a main effect demonstrated for mean pain intensity [F (1,131) = 23.716, p < 0.001] as the uncued mean decreased from 49.80 to 41.53 when cued. Although providing a cue almost doubled the total number of pain events recalled from 318 to 623 it affected the recall of some pain events more than others. For all categories except ‘fracture’, providing a cue increased the number of pain events. It also increased the mean intensity for some pain events i.e. migraine, labour, backache, arthritis and fracture, yet decreased the pain intensity for others (i.e. earache, headache, menstrual, dental, renal, burn, tissue damage and cholecystitis). Multiple paired t tests with Bonferroni correction, demonstrated that there was a significant increase in the mean intensity rating for backache {t = -3.172, df 38, p = 0.006} with a significant decrease for tissue damage {t = 3.302, df 45, p = 0.004}. Discussion Surprisingly, participants recalled relatively few pain events in the past year. However, cuing resulted in a significant increase in the number of recalled pain events. Thus, many pain events are unable to be recalled if not cued. This finding is in accordance with Tulving and Pearlstone’s (1966) theory that providing a cue will increase the ability to recall an event. The provision of cues about specific pain events such as childbirth, headache or earache increased the ability of subjects to recall having experienced these pain events. According to Bellezza (1992), this may be due to the cue stimulating episodic memory. Although cuing resulted in the recall of pain events of a lower overall mean intensity than when not cuing, this was not the case for all types of pain. Cuing resulted in significantly higher levels of recalled backache pain being reported than no cuing. It is not the case that higher levels of pain result in better recall. Conclusions This study could have important implications in the health setting. Allowing a patient to have free recall may lead to significantly fewer painful events being recalled than if a cue is provided. In order to improve the accuracy of recall, it is suggested that a cue should be provided which is specific and meaningful for the patient as this will help to stimulate episodic recall of pain.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2007


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