• Open Access

Involuntary Memories after a Positive Film Are Dampened by a Visuospatial Task: Unhelpful in Depression but Helpful in Mania?


Prof. E. A. Holmes, Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, Warneford Hospital, Oxford, OX3 7JX, UK.

E-mail: emily.holmes@psych.ox.ac.uk


Spontaneous negative mental images have been extensively researched due to the crucial role they play in conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. However, people can also experience spontaneous positive mental images, and these are little understood. Positive images may play a role in promoting healthy positive mood and may be lacking in conditions such as depression. However, they may also occur in problematic states of elevated mood, such as in bipolar disorder. Can we apply an understanding of spontaneous imagery gained by the study of spontaneous negative images to spontaneous positive images? In an analogue of the trauma film studies, 69 volunteers viewed an explicitly positive (rather than traumatic) film. Participants were randomly allocated post-film either to perform a visuospatial task (the computer game ‘Tetris’) or to a no-task control condition. Viewing the film enhanced positive mood and immediately post-film increased goal setting on a questionnaire measure. The film was successful in generating involuntary memories of specific scenes over the following week. As predicted, compared with the control condition, participants in the visuospatial task condition reported significantly fewer involuntary memories from the film in a diary over the subsequent week. Furthermore, scores on a recognition memory test at 1 week indicated an impairment in voluntary recall of the film in the visuospatial task condition. Clinical implications regarding the modulation of positive imagery after a positive emotional experience are discussed. Generally, boosting positive imagery may be a useful strategy for the recovery of depressed mood. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Key Practitioner Message

  • After a positive film, volunteers can experience involuntary ‘pop-out’ memories of that film over the subsequent week.
  • Performing a visuospatial task (the computer game Tetris) immediately after the positive film reduces spontaneous image memories and also impairs voluntary memory for details of the film.
  • Understanding the mechanisms underlying positive spontaneous imagery may offer insights for treatment innovation both for those conditions characterized by a deficit in positive imagery, such as depression, and for those characterized by a proliferation of positive imagery, such as mania.
  • Furthermore, this may suggest that the routine everyday tasks we engage in after a positive emotional event could have a significant impact on our memories of positive experiences.