Most of us are familiar with the idea that people who have experienced severe traumas sometimes REPRESS the memory of them (i.e. bury them deep in the unconscious where they cannot be consciously recalled). This process is known as REPRESSION.
This is thought to be an automatic process (ie. not under conscious control) which operates as a defence mechanism (when people deliberately try to push disturbing thoughts/memories out of conscious awareness, the process is known as suppression). Freud thought that such repressed memories festered in the unconscious, causing neurotic symptoms or hysteria and that they needed to be brought back into consciousness and worked through in order for healing to take place.
Psychologists refer to the inability to recall traumatic events DISSOCIATIVE AMNESIA.
Many have claimed that repression of traumatic memories is very common. For example, one therapist, Renee Frederickson (1992), claimed: ‘millions of people have blocked out frightening episodes of abuse, years of their lives, or their entire childhood.’ Indeed, today, many psychotherapists regard uncovering repressed memories as vital to the treatment of their patients.
But what does the research indicate?
Loftus (1993) found that most people seemed to have no trouble recalling traumatic events, up to, and including, the Holocaust. Indeed, such memories disturbed many in the form of FLASHBACKS.
The scientific community has also become increasingly aware that the ‘memory recovery’ procedures some psychotherapists use, such as hypnosis, can generate false memories of traumatic events, due, often, to a combination of SUGGESTION and LEADING QUESTIONS. So, patients can be encouraged to ‘recall’ something that, in fact, never actually happened. Indeed, so powerful can the effect be that the patient may truly believe the ‘recalled’ event happened, despite documentary evidence disproving it.
HOWEVER, NOT ALL RECOVERED MEMORIES (EVEN AFTER DECADES) ARE FALSE (eg. Schooter et al. 1997) SO RECOVERED MEMORIES OF TRAUMA SHOULD BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY AND CERTAINLY NOT DISMISSED. Instead, corroborating evidence should ideally be sought.
David Hosier. BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).