The aim of this research was to examine the underlying cognitive processes as well as the physiological outcomes of disclosing traumatic events. Epstein (1973, 1991, 1994, 1998) has argued the existence of two fundamental modes of cognitive processing: a rational mode that involves higher brain functioning and is reason-oriented, and an experiential mode that involves lower brain functioning and is pleasure-pain oriented. We examined the hypothesis that fact-based disclosure invokes rational processing while emotion-based disclosure invokes experiential processing by examining participants' physiological reactivity during as well as their behavior in a decision-making task following written disclosure. Based on previous findings suggesting that events involving high vs. low brain functioning involve different types of physiological activation (Berntson, Cacioppo, & Quigley, 1991), I proposed the following: First, emotion-based retelling would result in a uniform pattern of autonomic activity across subjects, marked by an increase in sympathetic (SNS) activity coupled with a decrease in parasympathetic (PNS) activity. Conversely, fact-based retelling would result in diverse SNS and PNS activity between subjects, including an increase in SNS activity with no change in PNS activity, and a decrease in PNS activity with no change in SNS activity. Second, emotion-based retelling would result in more nonoptimal than optimal choices in the decision-making task, while fact-based retelling would result in more optimal than nonoptimal choices in the task. Sixty undergraduates at a private, liberal arts university wrote about either a personally traumatic life event or a trivial topic for ten minutes and then participated in a decision-making task modeled after Epstein's ratio-bias (RB) paradigm. Impedance cardiography and a blood pressure cuff were employed to examine autonomic arousal, such as heart rate (HR) , blood pressure (BP), respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), and pre-ejection period (PEP) throughout the study. In partial support of our hypotheses, results indicated a significant degree of coupling between the PNS and SNS for those participants who wrote only about the emotions surrounding their trauma. Significant differences in the RB paradigm were found only in trial! of the task, with those writing about both the facts and emotions surrounding their trauma and those writing about trivial topics making the most optimal choices. Although these findings are promising rather than definitive, they suggest that the type of writing regarding a traumatic event invokes different cognitive and physiological processes.
Setork '01, Leila, "Cognitive and Physiological Processes Underlying Written Disclosure" (2001). Honors Projects. Paper 38.