September 09, 2004
Writing Diaries Bad For Mental Health?

Psychologists Elaine Duncan of the Glasgow Caledonian University and David Sheffield of Staffordshire University compared a group of people who kept regular diaries to a group that did not and found that diarists are more socially awkward, have more headaches, digestive problems, and other problems.

Statistically, the diarists scored much worse on health measures than the non-diarists. And worst affected of all were those who had written about trauma. “They were most susceptible to headaches and the like,” says Duncan.

Are those who decide to write diaries more prone to mental and physical unhealthiness in the first place? The fact that diarists who have written about trauma do worse than those who haven't suggests that it is the diary writing that is causing the health effects.

This result reminds me of the controversy over the question of whether post-trauma debriefing by counselors is beneficial for trauma victims. The results of a number of studies have been mixed. At best debriefing where victims are made to think through and discuss traumatic events probably has no value for most victims. At worst it may be causing the painful memories to have an even greater harmful effect upon mental health.

Some people who are made to relive painful events start filling in even worse false memories than they originally had.

Malachy Corrigan, the director of the Counseling Service Unit of the New York City Fire Department, was once a proponent of debriefing—but months before the September 11th attacks he decided that it was generally not a beneficial technique. “Sometimes when we put people in a group and debriefed them, we gave them memories that they didn’t have,” he told me. “We didn’t push them to psychosis or anything, but, because these guys were so close and they were all at the fire, they eventually convinced themselves that they did see something or did smell something when in fact they didn’t.” For the workers in the pit at Ground Zero, Corrigan enlisted other firefighters to be “peer counsellors” and to provide moral support and educational information about the possible mental-health impact of sustained trauma.

We are probably better off letting traumatic memories fade. If the memories are clear we can recall them and relive them and suffer pain from thinking about them.

These results bring up an interesting possibility: Will future biotechnologies that enhance memory formation increase the incidence of mental health problems as people become more able to recall painful experiences? Of course, if that turns out to be the case then there is an obvious counter: selective memory erasure. While I argue that for practical reasons we can't be allowed to have an unlimited right to memory erasure there could be considerable therapeutic benefit from the erasure of particularly traumatic memories. Some scientists argue that after initial memory consolidation takes place it may be possible to recall memories and then interfere with their reconsolidation as a way to erase recalled memories. Until we develop that capability it is probably wisest to avoid dwelling excessively on painful memories. Perhaps diaries should only be written to on happier days. Also, live in ways that reduce your odds of having traumatic or otherwise unhappy experiences so that bad memories don't need to be forgotten in the first place. Don't worry. Be happy.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 September 09 02:18 AM  Biological Mind

Jody said at September 9, 2004 11:44 AM:

Maybe this explains why the Islamists are such pissed off fellows. They're still focused on the Crusades.

Fly said at September 9, 2004 11:47 AM:

Will future biotechnologies that enhance memory formation increase the incidence of mental health problems as people become more able to recall painful experiences?

Here’s an article from last year on a drug to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder.

Pill may reduce troop trauma

As scientists better understand the brain, I believe memory engineering will become common. Enhance memory for learning and erase bad memories causing disorders.

I do wonder about just how robust the human brain is. With disease and aging some brain function diminishes. How much loss of memory is due to decreasing retrieval ability of brain regions such as the hippocampus and how much is due to deterioration in the structures storing the memory? Could an enhancement of the hippocampal region lead to inability to access old memories? (Some upgraded software applications can’t read old document formats.)

How much does our mind and memory depend on maintaining a consistent, stable biological brain? Would brain enhancement entail significant memory loss and require significant retraining?

Patrick said at September 10, 2004 1:41 AM:

Of course the problem there is that a blog is nothing more than a public diary. That explains a lot then doesn't it :)

sonicmute said at September 10, 2004 6:55 AM:

I kinda agree with jody. Ive been playing around with the thesis that human beings already have more history than we can assimilate and its going to get worse in the centuries ahead. The middle east is a mess because of historical scars that keep getting refreshed. But of course this is an extreme view. I happen to be a history buff and this line of thinking is making me depressed. Im gonna watch "eternal sunshine of the spotless mind" again.

Tbone said at September 10, 2004 3:46 PM:

Actually, it wasn't the Islamists I thought of while reading but of the Jews, Portnoy's Complaint, Woody Allen's life and movies and of course the continual remindings of the Holocaust. Have the Islamists been great diarists compared with the Europeans and their progeny?

kris r said at April 22, 2007 12:25 PM:

When recalling a memeory how do we know if whaqt we recall is true or not? Can we or do we cloud the memory of the event with so much emotion that we can not tell the truth behind the event? How do we sort out the facts from the fiction? When we write about an experince that happened to us but we are part of a group. And we compare our stories and only parts of the event match up. How can we sort throught to find out the truth? Can anyone help me????? :) lost and confused:(

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