Repressed memory

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Repressed memory is one of the most controversial subjects in the history of psychology and psychiatry. A repressed memory, according to some theories of psychology, is a memory (often traumatic) of an event or environment which is stored by the unconscious mind but outside the awareness of the conscious mind. Some theorize that these memories may be recovered (that is, integrated into consciousness) years or decades after the event, often via therapy. They may also reoccur in dreams. The theory of dissociative amnesia makes the assumption that memory repression is possible. Conservative estimates show that at least ten percent of all people sexually abused in childhood will experience periods of total amnesia for the abuse they suffered. This will be followed by delayed recall experiences [1] Peer reviewed and clinical studies continue to document the existence of recovered memory. [2] There are over one hundred corroborated cases of recovered memory in legal, clinical and scientific case studies. [3] The repressed memory concept was popularized during the 1980s and partly the 1990s by the popular press, some feminist groups, and some psychological schools of thought; however it is suffering a retreat in popularity with professionals and the public during recent years after a series of scandals, lawsuits, and license revocations concerning it.[4] The concept was originated by Sigmund Freud in his 1896 essay Zur Ätiologie der Hysterie ("On the etiology of hysteria"), however Freud himself abandoned his theory between 1897-1905, and during 1920-1923 replaced it with his impulse-based concept of Id, Super-ego, and Ego. Friedrich Nietzsche was the first to suggest an active, conscious thought management method in the second essay of his On the Genealogy of Morals as a necessary fundament of efficiency, responsibility, and maturity. The theory of repressed memories must not be confused with the established psychological concept of repression in general which stresses impulses instead of memories.

Do repressed memories actually exist?

Repressed memories may or may not exist. Amnesia of traumatic events does appear to happen, as do false memories or pseudo-memories; however, the hypothesis of repressed memories involves far more, as it theorizes not only that memories can become completely unavailable to the conscious mind (amnesia) but that those same memories could later be retrieved, and at the time of retrieval have the same (or greater) reliability as memories which were never unavailable to the conscious mind. Many theories of Amnesia, such as Dissociative Amnesia, involve recall.

However it remains true that one must distinguish general psychological repression, amnesia, false memories or pseudo-memories, and the hypothesis of repressed memories. They all are different concepts, each building upon different theoretical conceptions.

There currently exists a great controversy among researchers, treating professionals, law professionals, and the general public as to whether repressed memories actually exist, and even more heated controversy over whether recovered memories are valid, especially in the absence of corroboratory evidence. This is particularly important as many controversial criminal cases have been based on a witness' testimony of recovered repressed memories, often of alleged childhood sexual abuse. In some instance, the presumed existence of repressed memories are used to extend the Statute of limitations of child abuse case. Abuses of the Repressed Memory Theory and of controversial therapies like Recovered Memory Therapy often cause false memories to be formed.[5]

The Recovered Memory Therapy industry involved thousands of psychotherapists using hypnosis, group therapy and other means to help patients recover alleged "repressed memories". Part of this industry was dismantled over a five year period by hundreds of malpractice lawsuits beginning with the Hamanne v. Humenansky trial of August of 1995. [6]

Subsequent cases produced similar results culminating in the Burgus v. Braun case which, at $10.6 million, remains the world record for a psychotherapy malpractice settlement.[7]

Research and hypothesis supporting repressed memories

One speculative theory on how repressed memories originate is that traumatic memories are stored scattered about in the amygdala and hippocampus but not integrated into the neocortex. Also, it could be possible the right brain stores the memory but does not communicate it to the verbal left brain. This may mean that there is a continual active effort by the unconscious to repress memories, which can be dropped at a moment's notice should the unconscious decide that the recovery of such information is necessary or vital.[citation needed] For example, one possibility might be the anterior cingulate actively inhibits the memory from reaching consciousness.

Another hypothesis is that the cortisol, a chemical released during trauma, may induce forgetting.[8][9] Cortisol appears to have the ability to erase details and possibly induce amnesia. One anecdotal study done by ABC News showed military personnel who were put through an extremely traumatic situation were unable to properly identify details of the memories, even remembering the perpetrator as someone of a different sex or with a different skin color.[citation needed]

Occasional misleading ideas can’t explain false memories of sexual abuse. The idea that it is easy to implant false memories in therapy overstates available facts. The idea that suggesting false memories in therapy can create false memories has not been proven. [10] The fact that the concept of repressed memory appears in the DSM-IV shows that this concept is relevant in the specific scientific community. This satisfies the court rules regarding the admissibility of scientific testimony as court evidence. Science is limited on the issue of repressed memory. Three relevant studies state that repressed memories are “no more and no less accurate than continuous memories.” Therapists and courts should consider these repressed memories the same as they consider regular memories. [11] Research has shown that traumatized individuals respond by using a variety of psychological mechanisms. One of the most common means of dealing with the pain is to try and push it out of awareness. Some label the phenomenon of the process whereby the mind avoids conscious acknowledgment of traumatic experiences as dissociative amnesia . Others use terms such as repression , dissociative state , traumatic amnesia, psychogenic shock, or motivated forgetting . Semantics aside, there is near-universal scientific acceptance of the fact that the mind is capable of avoiding conscious recall of traumatic experiences. Research shows that individuals that are traumatized will deal with pain by pushing it out of their awareness. Some people call this repression. There is almost a universal acceptance in the scientific community that one’s mind can avoid the conscious recall of a traumatic experience. [12] The most comprehensive review of the scientific literature on dissociative amnesia has been conducted by Brown, Scheflin and Hammond in their book, "Memory, Trauma Treatment, and the Law" (New York: Norton, 1998). Brown, Scheflin and Hammond reviewed 43 studies relevant to the subject of traumatic memory and found that every study that examined the question of dissociative amnesia in traumatized populations demonstrated that a substantial minority partially or completely forget the traumatic event experienced, and later recover memories of the event. Dissociative amnesia can occur after any type of traumatic event. Brown, Scheflin and Hammond in “Memory, Trauma Treatment, and the Law” (New York: Norton, 1998) reviewed 43 relevant studies involving traumatic memory. They found that all of the studies that looked the idea of dissociation and amnesia in trauma victims showed that a large minority completely or partially forgot the event that included trauma. These people later remembered memories of what happened. [13]

Some people believe that people just force themselves to forget. Some studies have shown that people can force themselves to forget non-traumatic facts though memory inhibition processes. Other researchers say that this might be explained by normal forgetting and normal recall experienced with all memories.[14]

Many opposing studies exist. A review of these hypotheses has been published by Professors Harrison Pope and James Hudson of Harvard Medical School.[15] Other opposing views are cited in Charles Whitfield's book Memory and Abuse.[16]

Research and theories critical of the theory of repressed memories

Some studies of more than 10,000 trauma victims found none of them had repressed or recovered memories of trauma[17]. Similarly, some studies of thousands of abused children found no evidence at all for so-called repressed or recovered memories. Coupled with laboratory studies and other naturalistic investigations, most prominent researchers in the field agree with Harvard University's Richard McNally and consider the notion of repressed memory to be a "pernicious bit of psychiatric folklore" [18]. A recent Amicus Brief to the California Supreme Court drafted by R. Christopher Barden and signed by nearly 100 international experts in the field of human memory emphasized there is no credible scientific support for the notions of repressed and recovered memories. [19]

In addition, recent research demonstrating the relative ease of deliberately implanting false memories has been cited as evidence for this hypothesis. Hundreds of people who went through therapy and were convinced that they had been abused by their family members have recanted and no longer believe they were abused.[20] However, there have been many other studies that show a small percentage of childhood trauma that was verified by medical records, was forgotten for some significant period and remembered or verified later in life[21].

Repressed memories also may be mistaken for a normal form of amnesia of early childhood experienced by all humans. Memories before age 2 are almost always false or at least inaccurate, and few adults remember anything before age 3. This does not mean the individual was not abused, just that they do not have any memory of it and should not be expected to recall it.

Even when patients who have had therapy to recover 'memories' come to decide that their memories are in fact false (and so retract their claims), they can still suffer a kind of post traumatic stress. This is due to what some therapists call "brain stain". [22]

Recovered memory therapy

The recovered memory therapy (RMT) movement peaked in the mid-1990s with tens of thousands of patients annually reporting new so-called recovered memories. Thousands of patients’ families were torn asunder by allegations of abuse produced in therapy. The recovered memory movement was ultimately decimated by a wave of successful malpractice lawsuits. The first multi-million dollar verdict against a recovered memory therapist was the 1995 case of Hamanne v. Humenansky case in the U.S.[23] The final crushing blow to the RMT movement came in 1997 with a $10.6 million legal award to the Burgus family.[24] "The next thing I think there will be is legislation to require informed consent from psychiatric patients for such so-called 'treatments'," said Dr. R. Christopher Barden, a psychologist and lawyer [for the plaintiff], "This (case) is the death knell for recovered memory therapy."

Following a series of high profile litigation losses, many of the professional leaders of the RMT movement suffered licensing prosecutions, license revocations, disciplinary actions and even criminal prosecutions. The leading journal in the field, Dissociation, ceased publication. By 2000, the "memory wars" were largely over. The definitive work on the subject to date is "Remembering Trauma" by Prof. Richard McNally, Harvard University Press (2003). Prof. McNally summaries the relevant scientific research and concludes that the notion of repressed memory is nothing more than psychiatric "folklore".

Body memory

A form of repressed memory is supposed to be Body memory. Body memory is a claim that the body itself (rather than the brain) remembers something - typically abuse. This is characterised by a pain in a body part where there appears to be no present day physical reason for the pain, so this is seen as evidence of the body remembering a past pain, similar to phantom limb syndrome.[citation needed]

Some psychologists and social workers use the term body memory to refer to physical symptoms that accompany trauma. Studies have shown that survivors of trauma, specifically with PTSD, have a predisposition to illness and injuries. Stress headaches would also be an example of a "body memory" when you use this definition. However, these symptoms are not only trauma induced and do not prove or disprove memories or trauma.[citation needed]

There currently is no scientific evidence of body memory corresponding with either of these two definitions.

Freud on repressed memory

Freud abandoned his theory of repressed memory not "during his later years in life" and not due to social pressure, as some feminist schools of thought[citation needed] claim today. Some sources do not even mention Freud's decision of abandonment at all (for example Bass and Davis 1988,[25] Herman 1992[26]). Freud encountered facts in his psychoanalytical practice that contradicted his initial theory of repressed memories of traumatic sexual experiences during early childhood (mostly referred to as Freud's Seduction theory).[27] These were

  • a.) that he increasingly came upon evidences in individual cases logically outruling any possibility the 'recovered' events could have occurred,
  • b.) that, to a degree, he found himself able to direct his more suggestible patients into any recollection of memory he wanted to (especially while they were undergoing hypnosis), even more so in an entirely boundless manner when he turned to sexual matters, and
  • c.) linked aspects (to repressed memories timewise, spatially, and/or causally) that in contrary had not been repressed or that had always been manifest to the conscious mind of his patients in a transformed appearance (see defence mechanism) were not perceived by his patients as alarming or frightening on themselves. If negative trauma was the cause for the repression Freud observed, they should hence be perceived as negative. In fact these linked aspects frequently were connoted with positive emotions, partly even very intensely so, that the patients themselves could not explain.[citation needed]

Freud deduced from a.) and b.) that the unconscious mind actually knows no distinction between memories and imagination and therefore easily becomes subject to manipulation of memories and imagination, and by combining this analysis with c.), he concluded that it is personal desires and fantasies that are getting repressed instead as demanded according to social taboo.[citation needed]

This theory of repressed impulse in fact was the fundament of Freud's psychology, and it was essentially much more provocative and controversial than his initial theory of repressed memory had been already. First advancements after abandoning his initial theory of repressed memory can be seen in his Oedipus complex concept developed 1897-1905 (by his 1905 Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, it had completely replaced his initial theory), however it would take until the years 1920-1923 that Freud would introduce Id, Super-ego, and Ego.

One might say that by the recent disillusionment concerning sensationalist Recovered Memory Therapy during the past few years, mainstream scientific research is currently undergoing the acknowledgement of Freud's stages of a.) and b.). Whether scientists and even the public will acknowledge c.) and accept Freud's conclusions is a matter that only time can tell.

Famous trials involving repressed/recovered memories

Famous cases involving repressed memories come in two forms. The first was a wave of criminal prosecutions based upon recovered memories of abuse.

  • George Franklin Sr., charge: murder, accuser: Eileen, daughter crime: 1969, convicted 1995 time in jail: 6 years, duration of memory suppression: 20 years
  • accuser: Nicole Taus, charge: abuse, duration of suppression: 11 years
  • In some of the cases of Catholic priests accused of fondling or sexually assaulting juvenile-turned-adult parishioners [28][29]; also in the case of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.

The second was a wave of malpractice litigation cases that ended the reign of terror and collapsed the recovered memory therapy movement. Few if any recovered memory cases have been seen since many of the proponents of this controversial therapy suffered lawsuits and license revocations. Examples include the highly visible cases of Vynette Hamanne, Elizabeth Carlson and Patty Burgus, all of whom received multimillion dollar jury verdicts or settlements. Another example is the case of Tom Rutherford, who sued a Missouri church therapist and won a $1 million settlement for claims that he molested his four-year-old daughter and then forced her to have an abortion (he had, in fact, had a vasectomy year before and medical examination showed his daughter was still a virgin at age 23). State licensing boards also acted to end the recovered memory therapy movement, revoking or restricting the licenses of many prominent recovery memory proponents.

See, Belluck, P. Memory Therapy Leads to a Lawsuit and Big Settlement [$10.6 Million], The New York Times, Page 1, Column 1, Nov. 6, 1997.; See also, Guthrey, M. and Kaplan, T., 2nd Patient Wins Against Psychiatrist: Accusation of planting memories brings multi-million dollar verdict. St. Paul Pioneer Press, Jan. 25, 1996, 4B.

The Christian 'inner healing' movement

There has recently been a resurgence of interest in the idea of repressed/recovered memories among members of the Christian Inner Healing Movement. Critic Jan Fletcher describes one prominent example - Theophostic Prayer Ministry - as 'a form of Recovered Memory Therapy' [3].

Repressed memories in popular entertainment

Repressed memories were a frequent topic among talk-show hosts in the 1990s .

Repressed memories have frequently been portrayed in popular entertainment, especially as a plot device.

  • The film Tommy: the title character is coerced into forgetting that he has witnessed the killing of his father.
  • The film Nurse Betty: Betty also witnesses a murder and as a result of the trauma forgets her entire reality for a time, deluded into being a character in her favourite soap opera.
  • The film The Butterfly Effect: Evan has blackouts throughout his childhood when in traumatic situations. As a college student, he attempts to recover these memories and finds that he can change the past.
  • The film Spellbound: a horrible childhood memory has been suppressed and causes nightmares for years afterwards.
  • The video game Final Fantasy VII: the protagonist Cloud Strife carries false memories of his service in SOLDIER, the real memories suppressed after his Mako treatment.
  • The anime/manga Elfen Lied: one of the main characters, Kouta, suppressed the majority of his childhood after seeing his little sister being murdered by the protagonist Lucy.
  • The anime/manga Fruits Basket: the supporting character, Hatori Sohma had to suppress the memories of his love, Kana, after Akito Sohma blinded Hatori's left eye by throwing a vase at him and blamed Hatori's injury on Kana. The guilt from the accident drove her into madness and Hatori was forced to suppress her memories so that she could once again smile. Hatori has also had to suppress the memories of Yuki Sohma's friends, and Momiji Sohma's mother.
  • The anime/manga His and Her Circumstances: When Arima visits his girlfriend, Yukino's house for the first time he realizes he doesn't have a deep bond with his adoptive parents and is confronted with repressed memories of abuse and abandonment from his real parents.
  • The novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Charlie is confronted with repressed memories of being sexually abused by his aunt in the end of the novel after being upset and confused by sexual contact with his crush/friend, Sam.
  • The protagonist of the video game Silent Hill 2, James Sunderland, repressed his memory of murdering his wife prior to the game's events.
  • In the movie Total Recall, set in the year 2084, a man travels to Mars for a virtual vacation that implants memories of the trip in his mind, to recall those memories in exact detail. During his trip he recalls the truth about himself.
  • In the television series Dexter, main character Dexter Morgan has repressed memories of his mothers brutal murder.


  1. Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse Scientific Research & Scholarly Resources by Jim Hopper, PhD.
  2. Recovered Memory Project
  3. Recovered Memory Project Archive
  4. Robbins Susan P.,The Social and Cultural Context of Satanic Ritual Abuse Allegations, published in Institute for Psychological Therapies magazine, vol 10 1998.[1]
  5. See, e.g., Brandon, et al. (1998) Recovered Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Implications for Clinical Practice, Working Party report of the British Royal College of Psychiatrists, British Journal of Psychiatry, pgs. 296-307.
  6. Gustafson, Paul. Jury awards patient $2.6 million: Verdict finds therapist Humenansky liable in repressed memory trial. Minneapolis St. Paul Tribune, August 1, 1995.
    See also, Associated Press, Doctor Loses False-memory Suit, Chicago Tribune, Wed. Aug. 2, 1995, Sec. 1, pg. 12
  7. Belluck, P. Memory Therapy Leads to a Lawsuit and Big Settlement [$10.6 Million], The New York Times, Page 1, Column 1, Nov. 6, 1997.
  10. Brown, Scheflin and Hammond (1998). Memory, Trauma Treatment, And the Law (W. W. Norton) ISBN 0-393-70254-5
  11. Ground Lost: The False Memory/Recovered Memory Therapy Debate, by Alan Scheflin, Psychiatric Times 11/99, Vol. XVI Issue 11
  12. Research on the Effect of Trauma on Memory
  13. Summary of Research Examining the Prevalence of Full or Partial Dissociative Amnesia for Traumatic Events
  15. Pope HG Jr, Oliva PS, Hudson JI. Repressed memories. The scientific status of research on repressed memories. In: Faigman DL, Kaye DH, Saks MJ, Sanders J, eds. Science in the law: social and behavioral science issues. St. Paul, MN: West Group, 2002, pp 487-526.
  16. Charles L. Whitfield, M.D., Memory and Abuse, 1995, pg 70
  17. Pope HG Jr, Oliva PS, Hudson JI. Repressed memories. The scientific status of research on repressed memories. In: Faigman DL, Kaye DH, Saks MJ, Sanders J, eds. Science in the law: social and behavioral science issues. St. Paul, MN: West Group, 2002, pp 487-526
  18. McNally RJ. The science and folklore of traumatic amnesia. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 11:29-33, 2004
  19. Barden, R. C. Amicus Brief in Taus v. Loftus, Superme Court of California, Feb. 21, 2006.
  20. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation, Memory and Reality, retrieved 11/8/06.
  21. Charles Whitfield, MD, Memory and Abuse, 1995, pg 69
  22. Kelly Lambert and Scott O. Lilienfeld, [2], 'Scientific American Mind', Oct 2007.
  23. Associated Press, Doctor Loses ($2.5 Million) False-memory Suit, Chicago Tribune, Wed. Aug. 2, 1995, Sec. 1, pg. 12.
  24. Belluck, P. Memory Therapy Leads to a Lawsuit and Big Settlement [$10.6 Million], The New York Times, Page 1, Column 1, Nov. 6, 1997.
  25. Bass, E. (1988). The courage to heal. New York. p. 347. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
  26. Herman, J. L. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York. p. 13.
  27. Freud, Sigmund (1952). Zur Geschichte der analytischen Bewegung, from: Gesammelte Werke in Einzelbänden (Volume 10) (in German). Frankfurt/Main. pp. 55ff.
  28. Martin Gardner (January 2006). "The Memory Wars, Part 1". Skeptical Inquirer Magazine. 30(1).
  29. Martin Gardner (March 2006). "The Memory Wars, Parts 2 and 3". Skeptical Inquirer Magazine. 30(2).

See also

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