Effects of visuospatial tasks on desensitization to emotive memories


Requests for reprints should be addressed to Associate Professor David Kavanagh, Department of Psychiatry, University of Queensland, Royal Brisbane Hospital, Herston, Qld 4006, Australia (e-mail: davidk@psychiatry. uq.edu.au).


Objective. Intrusive memories of extreme trauma can disrupt a stepwise approach to imaginal exposure. Concurrent tasks that load the visuospatial sketchpad (VSSP) of working memory reduce the vividness of recalled images. This study tested whether relief of distress from competing VSSP tasks during imaginal exposure is at the cost of impaired desensitization.

Design. This study examined repeated exposure to emotive memories using 18 unselected undergraduates and a within-subjects design with three exposure conditions (Eye Movement, Visual Noise, Exposure Alone) in random, counterbalanced order.

Method. At baseline, participants recalled positive and negative experiences, and rated the vividness and emotiveness of each image. A different positive and negative recollection was then used for each condition. Vividness and emotiveness were rated after each of eight exposure trials. At a post-exposure session 1 week later, participants rated each image without any concurrent task.

Results. Consistent with previous research, vividness and distress during imaging were lower during Eye Movements than in Exposure Alone, with passive visual interference giving intermediate results. A reduction in emotional responses from Baseline to Post was of similar size for the three conditions.

Conclusion. Visuospatial tasks may offer a temporary response aid for imaginal exposure without affecting desensitization.