Background: A core cognitive attribute of depression is lower specificity in the expression of autobiographical memories. Despite interventions targeting memory specificity in depression, its underlying mechanisms are not yet fully understood. Depression also relates to poorer memory for episodic details; here we examine whether reduced specificity might simply reflect broader episodic memory deficits and weakened memory traces with the passage of time.
Methods: Undergraduate students with and without symptoms of depression completed the Autobiographical Interview and prose-reading episodic memory tasks to assess both same-day and delayed memory.
Results: Dysphoria and nondysphoria groups performed similarly on the tasks of immediate episodic and autobiographical memory; notably, the dysphoria group did not display evidence of lower specificity at this time point. After a delay, however, both groups demonstrated less specific memory responses on both memory tasks, and these declines were more pronounced in the group with dysphoria. That is, after a delay, individuals high in dysphoria showed a greater decrease in the quantity of specific event details reported on both the episodic and the autobiographical memory task. Additional analyses incorporating other clinical and cognitive measures indicated that these relations are largely unique to symptoms of depression.
Limitations: The sample comprised mostly female students; the study should be replicated with more diverse samples.
Conclusions: These findings support the claim that lower memory specificity is not peculiar to autobiographical memory, but rather, reflects impoverished memory more generally. This is an important consideration for theories and remedial strategies targeting memory specificity.