The question of whether repressed memories actually exist has sparked tremendous controversy in the mental health community over the last thirty years. Described as memories that the mind has blocked as a protective measure against awareness of trauma, repressed memories came to the forefront of many notorious legal battles involving allegations of child sexual abuse in the 1990s. Since that time, the theory of repressed memories has largely been disproven and the source of its genesis identified. There are some few psychologists who still believe in them.
What are repressed memories?
The term “repressed memories” refers to memories involving an episode or episodes of high trauma or stress that the individual is unable to recall because the mind has unconsciously blocked it in self-protection. Those who believe that repressed memories say that though the repressed episode is not consciously accessible, it still has an impact on present behavior or emotions, and can be revealed as a result of extensive therapy. Those who do not believe in repressed memory argue that what is produced is not a true memory but instead a combination of actual events and suggested events that create a false memory. Others hold that a repressed memory is the product of dissociative amnesia that is recovered either spontaneously or through suggestion. Those who doubt the truth of repressed memories have linked the theory to romanticism.
The history of repressed memories
The first presentation of repression of memories came from Sigmund Freud, who distinguished between suppressed memories — memories which are consciously blocked so that the person suppressing them does not have to deal with them — and repressed memories. He indicated that the brain blocked these memories as a result of an unconscious internal process designed to minimize the impact of trauma on daily life. Accessing these repressed memories formed the basis of much of early psychoanalysis. (Guide to Psychology).
Freud placed particular focus on the role of repressed memories in cases of child abuse, which he believed was the cause of many mental disorders. He believed that people who had repressed memories could even lose the use of limbs, as in the case of a famous patient he studied named Anna O, and that it was only by drawing these memories out that a patient could recover. He later discarded this theory, replacing it with the notion that mental health disorders were linked to children’s sexual fantasies about their parents.
The battle between repressed memories and false memories
When Freud linked childhood fantasies about parents to memory, he was clear that sexual behavior did not have to take place for the mental health disorders to appear. But by the 1980s, therapists began to work towards forcing memories they believed to be repressed to the surface, believing that doing so was the only way for mood disorders to be addressed. That gave rise to a hypothesis that combining existing memories with unrelated inputs could lead to false memories. Believers in repressed memory argue that what they are uncovering is real, and that doing so is the only way to relieve mental health symptoms. Their opponents argue against the notion of repressed memory, saying that traumatic memories are more easily recovered than non-traumatic ones. They believe it is better to focus on recovery than moving backwards, and question the methods being used to evoke repressed trauma. (Simple Psychology)
Repressed memories and the law
Repressed memories were in the forefront of numerous child sexual abuse lawsuits in the 1990s, when people who submitted to repressed memory therapy began making accusations against family members and others as a result of newly recovered memories. This trend both led to confessions by abusers and accusations that false memories had resulted in innocent people being convicted of terrible crimes, and family relations being devastated as a result. In one notable case, a noted psychologist accused her father of sexual assault and has never spoken to her parents since. The family has formed the False Memory Syndrome Foundation to support other parents that they believe victimized by false memories, while Dr. Freyd continues to believe strongly in her previously repressed memories and has become noted for her work in what she calls Betrayal Trauma.
Today, the American Psychological Association has issued statements indicating that repressed memories cannot be distinguished from false memories unless there is corroborating evidence. In court, claims of crimes based on repressed memories are subject to cross examination, including the right of the accused to determine the methodology for evoking the memory to determine whether a therapist was overly suggestive or creative in introducing elements of the repressed memory. (Legal Match)
Disproving the idea of repressed memory
In response to the rising number of claims of childhood sexual abuse in the 1980s, as well as numerous cases in which people who had claimed to be victims later recanted those claims in the 1990s and pointed to dubious therapeutic techniques, researchers at McLean Hospital’s Biological Psychiatry Lab set out to prove whether repressed memory was a legitimate psychological phenomenon. Dr. Harrison Pope reasoned that if repressed memory existed in the same way that dementia, anxiety and other brain capabilities did, there would be historical documentation of it, as there is of all of the other diagnoses. He and a group of esteemed colleagues searched for the earliest recorded citation or example of a repressed memory, finding that though it became common in the 19th century, there was nothing any earlier. They then publicized a reward asking outsiders to find examples in either fiction or nonfiction before 1800. The closest example submitted came from an opera performed in Paris in 1786. The group concluded that the notion of repressed memory was a cultural one rather than a psychological one, and that it stemmed from the rise of Romanticism. (Harvard Magazine)
Proving the idea of repressed memory
In contrast to the study conducted by McLean Hospital, in 2004 a group of researchers from Stanford University and the University of Oregon set out to prove that the brain does have a biological mechanism for suppressing unwanted memories. Publishing in the journal Science, Stanford psychology Professor John Gabrieli, co-author of the study’s paper, wrote, “It gets you past the possibility that there’s nothing in the brain that would suppress a memory — that it was all a misunderstood fiction.” Gabrieli and his colleagues proved that people could block thoughts of experiences that they didn’t want to remember so effectively that they would eventually be unable to retrieve the memory. The research employed brain imaging scans to show what neural systems were involved in the effort, finding that memory repression involved increased activation of the left and right frontal cortex, and that the more study participants activated that area of the brain, the more effective their suppression efforts were. Notably, the experiment worked with volunteers asked to memorize and then to attempt to forget word combinations. It is unclear that the act of trying to remember and then actively trying to forget is the same as an unconscious effort at repressing traumatic events.(Stanford Report)