Is OCD Associated With Memory Problems?

Implications for OCD Treatment

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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 images or pictures (non-verbal memory).

In general, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that people with OCD have any problems with remembering information that has been stored verbally or in the form of words.

In contrast, it has been consistently found that people with OCD show deficits in non-verbal or visual memory. For example, in comparison to people without OCD, people with OCD often 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 does not seem to be related to their actual performance on memory tasks.

Implications for Treatment

So, what does this all mean for our understanding and treatment of OCD? Currently, it is unclear whether the changes in memory, particularly non-verbal abilities and metamemory seen in OCD, are a cause or effect of the obsessions and compulsions that go along with OCD. It is also not clear whether such changes are specific to OCD or whether they may apply to all anxiety disorders. As such, it is difficult to know whether targeting memory problems would be of any value in the treatment of OCD symptoms. Clearly, much more research is needed in this area.

It is well established that major depression can cause problems with memory and concentration and it is possible that the memory problems seen in OCD are actually related to the overlap of symptoms between depression and OCD, which often occur together.

Thus far, most studies looking at memory and OCD have not done a good job controlling for the effects of depression on memory.


Olley, A., Malhi, G., & Sachdev, P “Memory and executive functioning in obsessive-compulsive disorder: A selective review.” Journal of Affective Disorders 2007 104: 15-23

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