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repressed memory

...on critical examination, the scientific evidence for repression crumbles. --Harrison G Pope

In Freud's theory of "repression" the mind automatically banishes traumatic events from memory to prevent overwhelming anxiety. Freud further theorized that repressed memories cause "neurosis," which could be cured if the memories were made conscious. While all this is taught in introductory psychology courses and has been taken by novelists and screenwriters to be a truism, Freud's repression theory has never been verified by rigorous scientific proof. --John Hockmann

A repressed memory is the memory of a traumatic event unconsciously retained in the mind, where it is said to adversely affect conscious thought, desire, and action.

It is common to consciously repress unpleasant experiences. Many psychologists believe that unconscious repression of traumatic experiences such as sexual abuse or rape is a defense mechanism which backfires. The unpleasant experience is forgotten but not forgiven. It lurks beneath consciousness and allegedly causes a myriad of psychological and physical problems from bulimia to insomnia to suicide.

The theory of unconsciously repressing the memory of traumatic experiences is controversial. There is little scientific evidence to support either the notion that traumatic experiences are typically unconsciously repressed or that unconscious memories of traumatic events are significant causal factors in physical or mental illness. Most people do not forget traumatic experiences unless they are very young or are rendered unconscious at the time of the experience.

The strength of the scientific evidence for repression depends on exactly how the term is defined. When defined narrowly as intentional suppression of an experience, there is little reason to doubt that it exists. But when we talk about a repression mechanism that operates unconsciously and defensively to block out traumatic experiences, the picture becomes considerably murkier.

Evidence concerning memory for real-life traumas in children and adults indicates that these events--such as the Chowchilla kidnappings, the sniper killing at an elementary school, or the collapse of skywalks at a Kansas City hotel--are generally well remembered....complete amnesia for these terrifying episodes is virtually nonexistent (Schacter 1996, 256).

Psychologist Lenore Terr, a defender of repressed memory therapy, argues that repression occurs for repeated or multiple traumas, such as a repeatedly abused child. Schacter notes that "hundreds of studies have shown that repetition of information leads to improved memory, not loss of memory, for that information." He also notes that people who have experienced repeated traumas in war, even children, generally remember their experiences. A person who suffers a great trauma often finds that she cannot get the event out of her mind or dreams. Terr's theory is that the child becomes practiced at repression to banish the awful events from awareness, and forgetting might aid in the child's survival. Her dissociative theory, however, is based on speculation rather than scientific evidence.

Most psychologists accept as fact that it is quite common to consciously repress unpleasant experiences, even sexual abuse, and to spontaneously remember such events long afterward. Most of the controversy centers around recovered memories during repressed memory therapy (RMT). Critics of RMT maintain that many therapists are not helping patients recover repressed memories, but are suggesting and planting false memories of alien abduction, sexual abuse, and satanic rituals.

See also dianetics, hypnosis, false memory, mind, multiple personality disorder, repressed memory, repressed memory therapy, and unconscious.

further reading

books and articles

Ashcraft, Mark H. Human Memory and Cognition (Addison-Wesley Pub Co., 1994).

Baddeley, Alan D. Human Memory: Theory and Practice (Allyn & Bacon, 1998).

Baker, Robert A. Hidden Memories: Voices and Visions From Within (Buffalo, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1992).

Crews, Frederick. (1997). Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute. New York Review of Books Reprint Edition.

Dawes,Robyn M. Everyday Irrationality : How Pseudo Scientists, Lunatics, and the Rest of Us Systematically Fail to Think Rationally (Westview Press, 2001).

Erwin, Edward. (1995). A Final Accounting: Philosophical and Empirical Issues in Freudian Psychology. MIT Press.

Gardner, Martin. (2006). "The Memory Wars." Skeptical Inquirer. Part 1 is in vol. 30 no. 1, parts 2 and 3 are in vol. 30 no. 2.

Goldstein. Eleanor C. (1992). Confabulations: Creating False Memories, Destroying Families. Sirs.

Hallinan, Joseph T. "Money for repressed memories repressed," Sacramento Bee, Jan. 12, 1997, Forum.

Loftus, Elizabeth. The Myth of Repressed Memory (New York: St. Martin's, 1994).

Pendergrast, Mark. Victims of Memory : Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives 2nd ed. (Upper Access Book Publishers, 1996).

Schacter, Daniel L., editor, Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past (Harvard University Press, 1997).

Schacter, Daniel L. Searching for Memory - the brain, the mind, and the past (New York: Basic Books, 1996).

Schacter, Daniel L. The Seven Sins of Memory : How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001).

websites

Was Repressed Memory a 19th-Century Creation? by Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post, February 26, 2007

Benedict Carey on repressed memory

Twelve Myths about False Memories

Truth or invention: exploring the repressed memory syndrome; excerpt from The Myth of Repressed Memory by Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham

Creating False Memories by Elizabeth Loftus

The Reality of Repressed Memories by Elizabeth F. Loftus

"Recovered Memories of Abuse: Assessment, Therapy, Forensics," by Kenneth S. Pope, Ph.D., ABPP and Laura S. Brown, Ph.D., ABPP

"Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse: Scientific Research & Scholarly Resources" by Jim Hopper, M.A.

Viruses of the Mind by Richard Dawkins

Psychiatric patient tells of ordeal in treatment by Hal Dardick, Chicago Tribune, February 13, 2004

A Cultural Symptom? Repressed Memory by Ashley Pettus, Harvard Magazine

news

Research finds repressed memories don't exist

The idea that traumatized people, especially the victims of child sexual abuse, deliberately repress horrific memories goes all the way back to the 19th century and the theories of Sigmund Freud himself.

But now some experts are saying the evidence points the other way.

Professor Grant Devilly, from Griffith University's Psychological Health research unit, says the memory usually works in the opposite way, with traumatized people reliving experiences they would rather forget.

"It's the opposite. They wish they couldn't think about it," he said.

In a briefing to the US Supreme Court, Professor Richard McNally from Harvard University described the theory of repressed memory as "the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry".

Diocese settles with attorney who claims repressed abuse memory for 50 years

The Diocese of Lansing has paid a $225,000 settlement to a man who claimed he was abused in 1954 or 1955 by the priest who founded a children’s home. The priest died in 1983; no other abuse allegations have been made against him.

The alleged victim, an attorney, says that he repressed his memory of the abuse until 18 months ago, at which point he suffered a breakdown. According to his attorney, the alleged victim is no longer able to practice law.

In the settlement, the diocese denied the allegation. “Even if we get an allegation that we can't substantiate, we continue to support those who claim they have been abused,” said a diocesan spokesman. “If that support includes assistance in getting counseling, we'll do that.” The alleged victim’s attorney countered that the diocese would not have settled if the allegation had not been credible.

Man who alleged sexual abuse settles with priest

A man who claimed a repressed memory of alleged sexual abuse by a Vianney High School teacher has agreed to settle with the priest for $500,000.

Under the settlement terms filed with St. Louis County court earlier this month, Brother William Mueller, 71, of San Antonio, will pay Bryan Bacon damages for child sexual abuse and battery.

Last updated 12-Sep-2014

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