Enhanced perceptual priming for neutral stimuli occurring in a traumatic context: two experimental investigations.
Michael T., Ehlers A.
Intrusive memories in posttraumatic stress disorder are often triggered by stimuli that are perceptually similar to those present shortly before or during the trauma. The present study aims to examine the possible role of perceptual priming in this phenomenon. It further investigates whether the degree of perceptual priming is associated with dissociation and whether both perceptual priming and intrusive memories can be reduced through elaboration. Two experiments measured perceptual priming for neutral stimuli that immediately preceded a "traumatic" event. Volunteers (N=46, 92) watched a series of "traumatic" and neutral picture stories, and completed a blurred object identification (perceptual priming) memory task, and a recognition memory task. Participants in Experiment 1 were selected to score either high or low on the Trait Dissociation Questionnaire [Murray, Ehlers, & Mayou (2002). Dissociation and posttraumatic stress disorder: Two prospective studies of motor vehicle accident survivors. British Journal of Psychiatry, 180, 363-368]. They also completed a state dissociation measure in the session. Experiment 2 randomly allocated participants to an experimental condition designed to increase elaboration or to a control condition. This experiment also included a measure of intrusive memories. Both experiments found enhanced perceptual priming for the stimuli that immediately preceded the "traumatic" stories compared to those preceding neutral stories. Participants with high trait dissociation showed relatively stronger perceptual perceptual priming. The degree of perceptual priming for stimuli from the "traumatic" stories also correlated with state dissociation (Experiment 1). Experimental manipulation of the elaboration of the stories showed that elaboration reduced the enhanced perceptual priming effect and the relative probability of reexperiencing symptoms (Experiment 2). The results support the role of perceptual priming in intrusions after traumatic events.