The concept of repressed memories was made popular by Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) who hypothesized that traumatic memories could be buried deep in the unconscious without conscious access for long periods of time and that this caused his patients’ mental distress and neurotic symptoms.
He also put forward the view that it was only by uncovering these memories and bringing them back into conscious awareness that these patients could be cured. Now, around a century later, the debate surrounding the concept of repressed memories is still not resolved and research into the phenomenon is ongoing.
According to MEMORY REPRESSION THEORY, some memories of childhood trauma in some individuals are not accessible to full conscious recall. In the short term, this serves to protect the person from recollecting events that may be unbearably emotionally and psychologically painful and distressing.
However, according to the theory, over the longer term, such repression of memories is likely to become harmful to the individual.
This is because without conscious access to his/her traumatic memories s/he is unable to process them fully.
This inability to process the traumatic memories can, in turn, lead to a variety of serious psychological problems and a much-lowered probability of recovering from conditions associated with childhood trauma such as complex posttraumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD).
Present State Of Knowledge Surrounding The Phenomenon Of Repressed Memory:
At present, many leading researchers believe some people may have repressed memories, but, if they do, the phenomenon happens extremely rarely. 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.
However, others 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.
One problem that contributes to the lack of certainty regarding the issue is that the subject area cannot be experimentally investigated as it would clearly be unethical to subject people to severe trauma and then investigate whether or not they repressed their memory of it.
The main theory that seeks to explain why repression of memories happens is that it serves to protects the person from the overwhelming psychological pain that recalling the traumatic event would entail – in other words, it is a form of dissociation If it is thought previously dissociated memories have been recovered they are also sometimes referred to as ‘delayed memories’.
However, more conclusive empirical evidence for this process still needs to be collected. Leading researchers into the relationship between the experience of trauma and the memory process are also largely in agreement that, sometimes, people construct ‘memories’ of events that did not, in reality, occur. The term which has been given to such false memories is ‘pseudo memories.’
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.
Indeed, there has been a long-standing debate about the reliability of recovered memories of trauma and abuse. The psychologist Loftus draws our attention to the distinction between Type I and Type II traumas. Type I traumas relate to a single event, whereas Type II traumas refer to those which were repeated and ongoing.
It has been argued that Type I traumas become indelibly seared into conscious memory, whereas Type II traumas are susceptible to being repressed.
Loftus also puts forward the view that, in general, memory tends to be unreliable. She stresses that memory does not work like a tape recording but is instead a less than perfect reconstruction of events.
Loftus theorizes that memories may be distorted through factors such as fears, wishes, fantasies, social context, and extraneous recollections.
However, research suggests that highly significant and central events ARE remembered accurately – it is the less significant details of the event which are prone to distortion.
For example, somebody who witnesses a shooting is hardly likely to erroneously recall it as a stabbing; however, details such as the appearance of the perpetrator are far more likely to be unreliable.
Another psychologist involved in research relating to repressed memory recovery, Yapko, suggests that some recovered memories of trauma and abuse may be false as they were placed into the person’s mind, either wittingly or unwittingly, by a therapist.
This may be due to incompetence, personal influence, a wish to prove a ‘pet theory’, a loss of neutrality, convincing the patient they must recover their buried memories in order to get better, or by focusing too much on the past at the expense of the present and the future.
Despite the views of Yapko, however, there is little solid evidence that therapists can inadvertently create clinically significant false memories in their patients.
It is worth repeating that memories of highly significant, dramatic, and emotionally charged events overwhelmingly tend to be accurate.
STUDIES RELATING TO RECOVERY OF REPRESSED MEMORIES:
A study by Loftus focused upon females with substance misuse disorders who were undergoing treatment as psychiatric outpatients.
They were interviewed about their memories of sexual abuse and it was found 19% of them claimed that they had forgotten their abuse for a long period of time before they eventually recovered the memories.
Another study, by psychologist Schatzow, of 53 females, found that 28% of them had significant memory loss of trauma.
The psychologist Williams, too, conducted research into repressed memories. His study made use of hospital records of females, 38% of whom had no memory of their documented abuse.
HOWEVER, these studies focused largely on details of memory and Type II trauma, rather than on single dramatic, central events (Type I trauma).
THEORIES RELATING TO WHY SOME REPRESSED MEMORIES EVENTUALLY RE-EMERGE :
The psychologist Terr has put forward the view that repressed memories are most likely to be recovered once the danger has passed and the person who experienced the trauma has started to feel relatively safe.
This may be, for example, in the consulting room of a trusted therapist or in the context of a safe marriage or other significant relationship. Often, too, the recalled memory will be connected to a trigger or cue which relates to the buried traumatic memory closely enough to reactivate it.
What Other Reasons May There Be That Explain Why Some People Say They Have Forgotten Major Events In Their Early Lives?
According to Breuer (who worked with Freud), the reasons that might explain why many people report having forgotten major events from their early lives include
- SIMPLE FORGETTING
- ATTRIBUTION OF NEW MEANING TO A LIFE EVENT (e.g. realizing, as an adult, one was abused as a child even though one did not realize it at the time, bringing the event and previously ‘forgotten’ details surrounding it vividly back to life and to the forefront of one’s mind. This may occur as a result of a trigger or as a result of reviewing one’s life experiences with a therapist).
- STATE-DEPENDENT LEARNING:
WHAT IS STATE-DEPENDENT LEARNING? State-dependent learning is a phenomenon whereby, individuals are better able to recall information if they are in the same mental and physical state as they were when they originally encoded the information into memory.
EXAMPLE OF STATE-DEPENDENT LEARNING:
- Information encoded when under the influence of alcohol may be better recalled when again under alcohol’s influence compared to when completely sober.
- Information encoded in a particular physical location may be better recalled when again in the same physical location.
A study conducted at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine found that FEAR-RELATED MEMORIES such as memories of childhood trauma which the brain attempted to encode and store whilst one was in a state of terror may well also be subject to the influence of state-dependent learning.
In other words, it is theorized that traumatic, frightening memories from childhood may only be accessible to conscious awareness when one is in a similar mental state. Researchers involved in the study pointed out that therapy is less likely to be successful if the very events (i.e. childhood trauma/s) that underlie the individual’s mental health condition cannot be recalled by the individual involved.
TRAUMATIC STRESS CHEMICALLY ALTERS THE BRAIN LEADING TO FEAR-RELATED MEMORIES BEING ABNORMALLY ENCODED RENDERING THEM INACCESSIBLE TO NORMAL CONSCIOUS RECALL:
Based upon experiments on mice, the researchers hypothesized that traumatic stress causes fear-related memories to be stored in an abnormal fashion which, in turn, makes them inaccessible to normal conscious recall.
Specifically, they theorized that when under traumatic stress, some individuals activate the brain’s EXTRA-SYNAPTIC GABA SYSTEM and it is this system that causes the fear-related memories to be, as it were, locked away from ordinary conscious access.
In light of the above, it is possible that, in the future, drugs that change the chemical state of the brain may prove of therapeutic value in circumstances whereby uncovering hidden memories would be of benefit to a individuals’ recovery from conditions related to childhood trauma.
Repressed Memory Therapy:
Despite the controversy and uncertainty surrounding the concept of repressed memories (not least the possibility that some therapists, due to their particular biases, might inadvertently encourage the client to develop ‘false memories’) some practitioners do offer therapies that are designed to help individuals retrieve ‘repressed’ memories so that they may be processed and increase the client’s chances of recovery from their adverse effects. These include primal therapy and brainspotting.
However, there is a distinct lack of evidence supporting their purported (by the therapists that use the techniques) effectiveness.
Because processes underlying both repressed memories and pseudo memories are still not properly understood there still remain many important questions upon which it is necessary for future research to focus; such questions include:
A) How, exactly, are traumatic memories processed differently by the brain compared to non-traumatic memories and how might this interfere with both their storage and their subsequent recall?
B) Are some people more likely to develop pseudo memories than others? If so, why is this?
C) If pseudo memories have been formed, under what kinds of conditions is this most likely to happen (eg suggestions made by/the influence of poorly trained therapists?)
D) If memories have actually been repressed, what are the most effective techniques that can be used in order to recover them as accurately as possible?
Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “How traumatic memories hide in the brain, and how to retrieve them: Special brain mechanism discovered to store stress-related, unconscious memories.”ScienceDaily, 17 August 2015.
David Hosier BSC Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)