Research by Serrano et al (2004) indicated that

older adults with depressive symptoms showed that with increased specificity of memories, individuals show decreased depression and hopelessness and increased life satisfactions. - Wikipedia


  • Does the Seranno et al study apply for most people?
  • How does recalling a specific memory decrease depression?
  • Can it be any specific memory?


  • Serrano, J. P., Latorre, J. M., Gatz, M., & Montanes, J. (2004). Life review therapy using autobiographical retrieval practice for older adults with depressive symptomatology. Psychology and Aging, 19(2), 272.
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Would you like to expand on your third question ("Can it be any specific memory?")? I don't understand it. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Aug 30 '13 at 12:47

In a meta-anylysis, Bohlmeijer (2007) found that:

In the last twenty years reminiscence has been applied in a large number of settings and with a large number of target groups. Examples of applications are: community-residents with a major depression, elderly with moderate depressive symptoms, nursing home residents, elderly with dementia, rural-dwelling older adults, elderly in assisted-living communities. ... We conducted a meta-analysis to assess the effects of reminiscence on depression across different modalities and target-groups. An over-all effect size of 0.84 (95% CI = 0.31 – 1.37) was found, indicating a statistically and clinically significant effect of reminiscence and life review on depressive symptomatology in elderly people. This effect is comparable to the effects commonly found for pharmacotherapy and psychological treatments. (p. 152f.)

To answer your first question, it seems that reminiscence and life review are an effective treatmtment of depression for a wide variety of (elderly) patients. It should be noted that a "significantly larger effect was found in studies in which life-review was the intervention (d=1.04) as compared to studies that used simple reminiscence (d=0.40)" (p. 152).

Several theories have been applied to try to explain how recalling memories decreases depression:

  • disengagement theory
  • ego-integrity theory
  • continuity theory
  • socio-emotional selectivity theory

Disengagement Theory

The foundations for reminiscence and life-review therapy were laid by Butler (1963) in his famous paper The life-review: an interpretation of reminiscence in the aged. In this paper Butler put down his clinical observation of an increase of reminiscence – the act or process of recalling the past - in older people and postulated that this was due to the universal occurrence of an inner experience or mental process of reviewing one’s life. He conceived of life-review as a spontaneously or naturally occurring process that is ‘characterized by the progressive return to consciousness of past experiences, and, particularly, the resurgence of unresolved conflicts’ (Butler, 1963, pg 66). He hypothesized that it is caused by the ‘realization of approaching dissolution and death, and the inability to maintain one’s sense of personal invulnerability’ (Butler, 1963, pg 67). Though he recognized that people of all ages review their past from time to time and that any crisis may prompt life review, Butler stressed that life-review is more intensive and observed more frequently in (early) old age. He discerned adaptive and constructive manifestations of life-review from psychopathological manifestations. The adaptive variant is described as a reconsideration of former life-experiences and their meanings. It will often be accompanied by mild feelings of nostalgia or regret but is generally typified by expanded understanding and acceptance of one’s life, the experience of meaningfulness and declining death-anxiety. (Bohlmeijer, 2007, p. 32)

Ego-Integrity Theory

In its early stages reminiscence was studied mainly within the context of developmental stage theory (Erikson, 1963; Webster, 1999). Life-review was seen as a naturally occurring process which takes place in the last stage of the psychosocial development of human beings. The main hypotheses that could be deduced from this theory were that life-review is universal and old-age specific. These hypotheses were not confirmed in empirical studies. ... Based on studies rejecting the claim that life-review is old-age specific, it was suggested that reminiscence and life-review could be better understood within a life-span perspective (Webster & Cappeliez, 1993; Webster, 1999). ...

In addition to the disengagement theory (Baum & Baum, 1980; Butler, 1963) and the ego-integrity theory (Erikson, 1956; Taft & Nehrke, 1990), in recent years new theories are applied to reminiscence, for example the continuity theory and socio-emotional selectivity theory. These theories fit with a contextual and life-span approach to reminiscence. (Bohlmeijer, 2007, p. 37f., 40)

Continuity Theory

According to continuity theory individuals, when confronted with life-events or transitions, ‘attempt to preserve and maintain existing internal and external structures and they prefer to accomplish this objective by using strategies tied to their past experiences of themselves’ (Atchley, 1989, pg 137). This sense of continuity, with the aid of reminiscence, will promote adaptation (Parker, 1999). Continuity theory would predict that people will reminisce more frequently during periods of personal transition than in more stable periods. In testing this hypothesis, Parker (1999) found that young people were significantly more likely to reminisce during transitional periods than older adults. (Bohlmeijer, 2007, p. 40)

Socio-Emotional Selectivity Theory

Another theory applied to reminiscence is the socio-emotional selectivity theory (Carstensen, 1995). This theory proposes that with growing age emotion regulation becomes more important than information gain and that the elderly arrange their social life in such a way (concentrating on close relationships) that they can have as many emotionally meaningful interactions as possible (Pasupathi & Carstensen, 2003). One important aspect of such self-regulation is known as the positivity effect (Carstensen & Mikels, 2005), in which it is assumed that an emo- tionally gratifying focus ‘...would bias attention and memory in favour of material that optimizes emotion regulation (i.e., positive material) even if there are costs to focusing only on such material’ (p. 118). This hypothesis has been supported by many studies (Kennedy, Mather, & Carstensen, 2004).

Older adults will therefore actively look for social interactions in which they reminisce because of the potential for emotion regulation and well-being (Penne- baker, 1997; Bluck & Levine, 1998). This preference for talking about the past in social interactions with strangers was confirmed in several studies (Pasupathi & Carstensen, 2003). (Bohlmeijer, 2007, p. 41)


Bohlmeijer's dissertation gives a comprehensive overview of this area, if you want a quick introduction. It is available for free online (see link below). Serrano's article has been quoted 157 times, according to Google Scholar. Probably some of those articles will provide interesting criticism and more recent research not covered in Bohlmeijer's meta-analysis from five years ago. You can find these articles listed at Google Scholar.


  • 1
    $\begingroup$ wow, amazing info, thanks...wonder why I have never heard of this before... $\endgroup$ Sep 4 '13 at 20:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I hadn't heard of this before, either. Researching this answer was a great way for me to learn something interesting and new. Thanks for the great question. And remember: There is more out there, and this is just a glimpse. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Sep 4 '13 at 20:44

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