In 2010, curious about my own successful corporate and consulting career and the results I’d seen mentoring others, I signed up part-time for an Open University Psychology degree, fascinated to understand how working on self-concept could have such an meteoric impact on results. This, you understand, was meant to be a hobby. In 2015, I graduated with a First-Class Honours degree and more questions than I had answers for. For two years, I did my own research alongside full -time consulting contracts. In 2017, I finally made the decision to put my 20-year career on hold to do a research PhD at Aston University.
At a high level, my PhD research is around identity, autobiographical memory (memories of personally experiences events) and affective disorders (most specifically, bipolar disorder). The entry point of my research is the phenomenon of overgeneral memory (OGM), a robust phenomenon in depression. OGM displays as a tendency to retrieve what are known as general memories (e.g. I was happy when I used to go out with my friends) rather than a memory of a specific events (e.g. I was happy when I went out with Jane to the cinema on Friday) – even when prompted to retrieve a memory of a single event. There is large body of evidence to support OGM, and various theories on what causes it. OGM is associated with a poorer recovery prognosis for depression, poor problem-solving and difficulty imagining positive future events, so there is huge value in being able to mitigate it. Interventions already exist, but the effects do not last in the long term. I hope that my research will be able to inform interventions to increase their longevity, and possible increase their application across a range of affective disorders.
Existing research on which I am conducting a literature review to base my own research includes theoretical models of bipolar disorder, identity development and identity discrepancies. I am also looking at cognitive risk factors for vulnerability to OGM, and at spontaneous thought as a wider variant of involuntary autobiographical memory. My studies will take a mixed method approach, as I believe that qualitative, phenomenological experience is vital to expand on what we can learn from quantitative studies. I will be investigating memory, cognition and emotion in relation to identity, working mainly within the clinical community.
From a wider perspective, I am looking at the links between emotional disorders and identity: self-discrepancies, social identities, self-narratives, life schemas. Autobiographical memory provides the building blocks of self. Conway and Pleydell-Pearce (2000) described how we construct generative autobiographical memories through the medium of working self, which they described as a complex hierarchy of interconnected goals and self-related knowledge. So what we remember, what we anticipate, what we experience, is not a concrete fact; it’s a construction that’s strongly influenced by the former life experiences through which our self-concept has been formed. Ultimately, I hope that my work around identity can help to inform a number of interventions in different fields that are used with affective disorders; and potentially, also to develop identity-based interventions for the clinical community.