Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Memory Loss

a distressed young man
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If you have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), you may have compulsions in which you repeat behaviors over and over again. For instance, you might have to repeatedly check to make sure that the front door is locked or that the stove is turned off. Or, you might have to repeat a ritual such as washing your hands or counting up to a certain number.

Because of the repetitive nature of many OCD symptoms, there has been some suggestion that people with OCD may experience some sort of problem with memory and simply forget that they’ve already carried out their compulsion.

Does Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Cause Memory Impairment?

Before talking about OCD and memory it may be useful to remember that there is more than one kind of memory. For instance, memories can be stored both as words (verbal memory) and as experiences such as images, shapes, faces, sounds, tastes, and feelings (non-verbal memory).

In general, it has been consistently found that there are deficits in non-verbal memory and executive (planning, organizing) functions in people with OCD.

For example, in comparison to people without OCD, people with OCD may have trouble accurately recalling and drawing a complex geometric shape that they have just been shown. Likewise, OCD has been linked to deficits in spatial memory such as remembering places on a map or the location of a room within a building.

Research suggests that these deficits in non-verbal memory are probably caused by the way information is encoded in the brain. Specifically, in OCD, certain information seems to be stored and organized in a way that can make it difficult to access when it needs to be recalled.

Metamemory and OCD

Metamemory refers to a person’s knowledge or awareness about their own memory and how confident they are in their own memory performance.

Not surprisingly, people with OCD, particularly those who have symptoms involving checking, have less confidence in their memory than those without OCD. Also, the worse OCD symptoms are, the worse this confidence in memory seems to be. Interestingly, people’s level of confidence in their memory does not always correlate to their actual performance on memory tasks.

A Word From Verywell

So, what does this all mean for our understanding and treatment of OCD? This raises important questions for further study. Do the changes in memory, particularly non-verbal abilities and metamemory seen in OCD, reflect a cause or effect of the obsessions and compulsions that go along with OCD? Do these cognitive deficits improve with treatment? Are there ways to target these neurocognitive changes with particular treatment interventions?

There have been some studies conducted in this area, but more research is needed.

5 Sources
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Additional Reading

By Owen Kelly, PhD
Owen Kelly, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, professor, and author in Ontario, ON, who specializes in anxiety and mood disorders.