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.
Present State Of Knowledge Surrounding The Phenomenon Of Repressed Memory:
At present, leading researchers believe some people may have repressed memories, but, if they do, the phenomenon happens extremely rarely.
One problem which 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.
If the phenomenon does indeed occur, a main theory to explain why it 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.’ However, it is often extremely difficult to prove that these memories are indeed false and, therefore, this area of research is somewhat controversial.
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).
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?
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.