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BACKGROUND: Intrusive re-experiencing in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) comprises distressing sensory impressions from the trauma that seem to occur 'out of the blue'. A key question is how intrusions are triggered. One possibility is that PTSD is characterized by a processing advantage for stimuli that resemble those that accompanied the trauma, which would lead to increased detection of such cues in the environment. METHOD: We used a blurred picture identification task in a cross-sectional (n=99) and a prospective study (n=221) of trauma survivors. RESULTS: Participants with acute stress disorder (ASD) or PTSD, but not trauma survivors without these disorders, identified trauma-related pictures, but not general threat pictures, better than neutral pictures. There were no group differences in the rate of trauma-related answers to other picture categories. The relative processing advantage for trauma-related pictures correlated with re-experiencing and dissociation, and predicted PTSD at follow-up. CONCLUSIONS: A perceptual processing bias for trauma-related stimuli may contribute to the involuntary triggering of intrusive trauma memories in PTSD.

Original publication




Journal article


Psychol Med

Publication Date





173 - 181


Accidents, Traffic, Adult, Analysis of Variance, Attention, Cross-Sectional Studies, Cues, Dissociative Disorders, Fear, Female, Humans, Male, Mental Recall, Middle Aged, Photic Stimulation, Prospective Studies, Severity of Illness Index, Socioeconomic Factors, Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic, Survivors, Violence, Visual Perception