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.


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 the 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).


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.


David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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