Flashbacks, Memory And The Prefrontal Cortex


We have seen from numerous other articles that I have published on this site how severe and protracted childhood trauma can, in some cases, lead to the development of complex posttraumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD) in later life and that one possible symptom of this condition is the experiencing of FLASHBACKS.

Flashbacks involve the individual who suffers from them re-experiencing and reliving traumatic events involuntarily in such an intense and vivid way (sometimes involving hallucinations) that it feels like they are actually happening in the here-and-now.

Flashbacks are generally triggered by something that reminds the individual (on a conscious or unconscious level) of the original traumatic event, even very tandentially.


A study conducted in 2008 involving sufferers of disorders related to stress has helped to cast some light upon what is happening in the brains of individuals who are prone to experiencing flashbacks.

First, it was found that these individuals’ ability to perform general memory tasks was inferior in comparison to the performance on the same tasks by healthy individuals.

Second, when those suffering from a stress-related condition were asked by the researchers to carry out a ‘suppression task’ (a task in which they were required to attempt NOT to think about something) they demonstrated LESS ACTIVITY IN THE PREFRONTAL CORTEX than did the healthy individuals when instructed to undertake the same task.

From this finding it was inferred that these individuals’ (i.e. those suffering from a stress-related disorder) underactive prefrontal cotices interfered with their ability to prevent traumatic memories breaking through into conscious awareness.

Learning ‘GROUNDING TECHNIQUES’ can help individuals cope with their flashbacks (grounding techniques involve using the five senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell – to reconnect with the present) although many may also require the services of an appropriately trained, qualified and experienced therapist, paticularly if suffering from disorders such as PTSD or complex PTSD.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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About David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

Psychologist, researcher and educationalist.

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