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Repressed Memories : The Need for Further Research

repressed memories

Repressed Memories


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.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

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 (please click here to read my article on 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 ‘pseudomemories.’ However, it is often extremely difficult to prove that these memories are indeed false and, therefore, this area of research is somewhat controversial.

Future Research

Because processes underlying both repressed memories and pseudomemories 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 pseudomemories than others? If so, why is this?

C) If pseudomemories 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).

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