Prefrontal-posterior coupling while observing the suffering of other people, and the development of intrusive memories


  • Emily Holmes is supported by the Medical Research Council (United Kingdom) intramural programme (MC-A060-5PR50), the Lupina Foundation, a Wellcome Trust Clinical Fellowship (WT088217), and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Oxford Biomedical Research Centre based at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, Oxford University (REF A93182). The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR, or the Department of Health. Funding for the Open Access publication charges for this article was also provided by the UK Medical Research Council.


Witnessing the suffering of others, for instance, in hospital emergency rooms but also through televised images in news or reality programs, may be associated with the occurrence of later intrusive memories. The factors contributing to why some people develop intrusive memories and others do not are still poorly understood. N = 121 healthy women were exposed to film scenes showing the suffering of dying, severely injured, and mourning people while their EEG was recorded. Individuals showing greater decreases of functional coupling between prefrontal and posterior cortices (greater decreases of EEG beta coherences) reported more intrusive memories of the witnessed events. This was shown for intrusions in the short term (immediately after viewing the film) as well as in the medium term (intrusive memories over 1 week). The findings illuminate brain mechanisms involved in the encoding of information in ways that make intrusive memories more likely.