Loving-Kindness Meditation Can Help Depressed People Retrieve Positive Memories

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Depression is more than just feeling sad. It disrupts some of your cognitive processes. One such cognitive process is the retrieval of auto-biographical memories or memories from your personal life experiences. This form of memory is crucial to human functioning and helps in establishing self-concept, emotion regulation, and problem solving. In a new study published in PLOS One, two UK-based researchers found that loving-kindness meditation can help depressed people recall specific personal memories.

“Loving-kindness meditation involves practicing unconditional kindness to oneself and others. Encouraging greater kindness to the self could reduce the impact of self-discrepancies on auto-biographical memories retrieval by reducing the negative affect associated with these judgements and their impact on auto-biographical memories retrieval,” Amanda Lathan and Barbara Dritschel of the University of St. Andrews, UK, wrote in their study.


In remitted major depression — which refers to experiencing fatigue, anxiety, and sleep disturbances after treatment — people experience difficulties in recalling specific and highly contextualized events.

“Specific memories refer to events that occurred at a particular time and place over the course of one day (e.g. my graduation from university) whereas over-general memories are comprised of extended (e.g. my holiday to Greece) and categoric memories (e.g. my walks in the park on Fridays),” the duo explained. “Both current and remitted depressed individuals have difficulty retrieving specific memories of personal events. Instead, when asked to retrieve such memories, over-general memories are often produced which are more abstract as they describe general features of repeated events.”

Over-general memories are counter-productive because they have been linked to rumination. And rumination can lead to a depressive episode. The researchers found that loving-kindness meditation can help in augmenting self-compassion. A distinct attribute of self-compassion includes being aware of present suffering without resorting to avoidance.


To delve into how this form of meditation could help, the team collected data on autobiographical memory for 50 students from the University of St. Andrews who had a history of depression. Each participant responded to cue words by writing details of their specific personal memories. In the control group, 25 students were asked to digitally color an image everyday which can help reduce anxiety levels. The control group were also told to meditate for 10 minutes a day.

Four weeks later, the 50 students in the kind-meditation group experienced better improvements in their ability to retrieve specific memories compared to the control group. They also spent lesser time ruminating. Both groups reported improvements in recalling positive memories.

The authors noted: “Loving-kindness meditation was shown to improve features of autobiographical memory retrieval in remitted depression which might reduce a cognitive vulnerability to depression. The meditation further acted as a buffer for the effects of autobiographical memory when cognitive reactivity was induced.”


“Increasing autobiographical memory specificity: Using kindness meditation to impact features of memory retrieval. Our findings have implications for developing treatments to alter features of autobiographical-memories retrieval in remitted depression and reducing a cognitive vulnerability to depression. The current study demonstrated significant improvement in specificity, valence, and vantage perspective,” they concluded.

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