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gimmedat's avatar

Do you believe in the concept of repressed memories?

Asked by gimmedat (3943points) June 30th, 2008 from iPhone

Are repressed memories real? Is it that something so painful can haapen to a person that they totally block all memory of it and it takes a trained therapist to uncover those memories as the root of current strife?

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9 Answers

SuperMouse's avatar

I have a dear friend whose entire family was torn apart by a “repressed memory” her older brother had. He somehow hooked up with a psychologist who convinced him that awful things happened to him as a boy, things so horrible he repressed the memory. This was utter balderdash, but the family has not been the same since.

My short answer? No, I do not believe in the concept of repressed memories.

gr8drmrs's avatar

NO!!!! It’s a crock.

gimmedat's avatar

Oops, I meant “happen” not “haapen.”

marinelife's avatar

I suppose it is possible that some therapist “convinced” some patient somewhere of something, but I have never even heard of any therapist that tried to do that. It is sort of antithetical to the process. I would also say to supernutjob that you weren’t in on the sessions so you don’t know that’s what happened. You are forming your opinion on what happened to this young man at least thirdhand.

This site says:
“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.”

Here’s another paper on it.

It is a controversial issue with no resolution, but I don’t think there is a categorical answer one way or the other.

For all those that feel very comfortable saying it is a “crock” or the like, I would just say that childhood sexual abuse is very real, and many of the abused block the memories in order to remain sane. It is the abusers who cry loudest and longest about the falseness of repressed memories.

Lee_27's avatar

I do believe in it to some extent, I know by my own personal experience I had some traumatic things happen in my childhood and I can remember some of it but it seems to have blocked out all memories of my childhood. So now I can’t remember hardly any of my childhood. I have never told anyone this before and only the person involved knows other than me. So I know that memory wasnt placed there by someone.

Upward's avatar

I believe “therapist” can bring out false memories. All the people abducted by aliens that “therapist” have help, more likely are false memories.

nikipedia's avatar

I think this is an incredibly complicated question. One of the things you learn about psychology if you study enough of it is that people really are all different, and we all deal with things in different ways, so anything is possible. But if you follow a large enough population, you do start to notice certain trends.

I can’t say anything definitive about repressed memories, but I would like to talk a little bit about two important concepts in psychology. The first is the idea of the misinformation effect. This was made famous by a psychologist named Elizabeth Loftus, who showed through a series of experiments that you can literally implant memories in people’s minds by asking them the right kinds of leading questions. For instance, in one experiment, she had study participants watch a video of a car running a yield sign and colliding with another car. When she later questioned study participants about the car running a stop sign, they remembered the car running a stop sign—not a yield sign.

A great deal more work in that field has been done and it has all been hotly contested, so it’s hard to say anything definitive about misinformation and false memories at all. I personally think it’s very compelling research and that it casts a lot of doubt on things like repressed memories.

I thought I had a good term for the other psychological concept I wanted to talk about, but after some research I realize I’m cobbling together a couple different ideas. Basically, our brain has a lot of mechanisms for protecting us from things that are just too painful for us to experience. One of those defense mechanisms is dissociation. Based on what I know about the neurobiology of emotional memory, tt seems to be not a huge stretch to go from dissociating an experience to failing to encode it properly.

So I think this then begs the really interesting question of whether a repressed memory is actually encoded differently in the brain (and if it was encoded improperly, how would you recall it later, anyway?) Scientists have a pretty good idea of how memories are formed, and memories are ostensibly physical networks in your brain. So if repressed memories do actually exist, I think there should probably be something physically different about them, or at least about accessing them. And I don’t think we have enough information to state anything definitive about that, but I also have yet to see any evidence of that in research on repressed memories.

So, in summary: I don’t think they exist. But it doesn’t seem impossible, either, and we don’t really have any way to know for certain.

And most importantly, I hope none of this is pejorative or minimizes the experience of people who have undergone a great trauma and struggled to deal with it.

marinelife's avatar

@niki Thanks for a good summary of the science. Frankly, I didn’t feel like typing that much!

I think I am correct that there is agreement in the field that conscious repression of traumatic memories is possible.

Repressed Memories
Repressing memories of traumatic events concerns a complex of cognitions and emotions that is mainly limited to a certain theme or event, such as sexual abuse in childhood. This is different from repression, which concerns the tendency not to express negative emotions in general. Repression of memories is initiated by traumatic events, whereas repression is a habitual style applied in a variety of situations. Although repressing memories of traumatic events could lead to an habitual style of repression, or magnify an existing tendency to repression that does not undo the conceptual difference.

Strengthening of existing repressive tendencies in response to a traumatic condition was demonstrated in a study among women who were awaiting the outcome of diagnostic tests for breast cancer, which may be conceived as a traumatic event. An increase in the number of repressors was found after the diagnosis of breast cancer was made known to the patients, whereas no increase was found in women who appeared to be free of cancer (Kreitler et al. 1993).

In a series of studies, McNally presented evidence that those who believe they were sexually abused as children, but have no memory for these events (“repressed memories”) show a particular style of information processing, which is different from those who have never forgotten their childhood sexual abuse or have never been sexually abused (McNally 2001). Individuals with repressed memories exhibited symptoms of psychological distress, elevated levels of dissociation and absorption, superior forgetting abilities for trauma-related material and memory distortions. Most of these characteristics were also found in individuals who report having recalled long-forgotten episodes of childhood sexual abuse (“recovered memories”). These characteristics may reflect a propensity for repressing traumatic memories, a propensity for forming false memories of trauma, or a consequence of abuse itself (assuming it occurred). Anyhow, this personality profile relates to information processing distortions of trauma-related material, not to emotionally loaded material in general as found in repression. Moreover, the high distress scores of individuals with repressed memories are incompatible with the concept of repression.

What is in dispute is if unconscious repression is possible. I would say that the prevailing view today is that led by Elizabeth Loftus, which holds that it is not possible.

I think the jury is still out in terms of fully understanding whether such a process exists and the mechanism by which it operates.

susanc's avatar

Yes, people breathed a sigh of relief when Elizabeth Loftus showed that repressed memory doesn’t happen – it made things seem simpler. But you can certainly read a non-scientific account of dissociation such as Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”
and recall your own inability to make sense of traumatic events, which as Marina points out might be unbearable otherwise.
And yes, many families have been destroyed by claims of family members whose therapists jumped on the abuse bandwagon. No doubt about it.

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