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"Critical Incident Amnesia: The Physiological Basis and the Implications of Memory Loss During Extreme Survival Stress Situations"

By Lt. Col. Dave Grossman & Bruce K. Siddle
The Firearms Instructor: The Official Journal of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors
Issue 31 / Aug 2001

The law enforcement officer is constantly required to move to the most traumatic and stressful situations in our society, to respond instantly and appropriately in these critical incidents, and then to accurately remember and report everything that occurred. Unfortunately, by their very nature, traumatic situations will inevitably result in memory impairment, which is referred to here as "critical incident amnesia." The greater the stress, the greater the potential will be for these memory problems to occur.

Officers who encounter an extremely stressful situation will consistently exhibit difficulty in transferring information into long term memory. Particular memory related phenomenon in traumatic situations include:

  1. During the actual incident there is usually a "sensory overload" combined with a "fixation" on some particular aspect of the critical incident, often to the exclusion of all else.
  2. Immediately after the incident, "post-incident amnesia" will often result in a failure to remember the majority of the information observed in the incident.
  3. After a healthy night's sleep there is usually a "memory recovery" which will result in the remembering the majority of what occurred, and this memory is probably the most "pure."
  4. Within 72 hours the final and most complete form of memory will occur, but it will be at least partially "reconstructed" (and therefore somewhat "contaminated") after the inevitable process of integrating available information from all other sources (media).

Critical incident amnesia is one of the ultimate horrors in a law enforcement environment. Failure to understand and address this problem can cause grave injustices. Memory failure in law enforcement officers, victims, and witnesses can result in a failure to convict or even to apprehend the guilty, or it can result in the prosecution and even the conviction of the innocent. This article will outline the aspects of critical incident amnesia, and will then address the implications and applications of critical incident amnesia to the law enforcement community.

  • Memory Influences Before The Critical Incident....All individuals have a set of schemas, inferences, and expectations that they bring into a situation, and which have significant potential to distort their memory of a critical incident.
  • Fixation and Perceptual Distortion.....Since memory is a product of perception, it is clear that memory can be disrupted when perception becomes disrupted.
  • Post-incident Amnesia.....If we do not attend to something it is generally lost to memory (Cherry, 1953; Moray, 1959). Intense fixation of attention on a particular aspect of a critical incident can cause vivid memories in some areas, but by definition this focused attending in one area will cause a reduction in attending (and thus to memory) in all other areas.
  • Memory Recovery......After a critical incident much of the information may still be in the brain but it has not been processed in such a manner that it can be retrieved.
  • Memory Reconstruction.....Inevitably, an individual who has encountered a critical incident will seek information from outside sources in order to make sense out of what has occurred. In many cases this process of exchanging information will provide "retrieval cues" which will aid in the retrieval of information.
  • Applications and Implications to Law Enforcement.......The implications of critical incident amnesia on law enforcement are profound, and it is vital that procedures be established which will ensure that the most accurate and most complete memories are protected and preserved as a part of standard procedures.
  • Conclusion.........The overall application of a scientific understanding of memory processes in a law enforcement environment has potential for tremendous payoff.
  • References
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