Repressed memory

Repressed memory

Repressed memory is a hypothetical concept used to describe a significant memory, usually of a traumatic nature, that has become unavailable for recall; also called motivated forgetting in which a subject blocks out painful or traumatic times in one's life. This is not the same as amnesia, which is a term for any instance in which memories are either not stored in the first place (such as with traumatic head injuries when short term memory does not transfer to long term memory) or forgotten.[1]

The term is used to describe memories that have been dissociated from awareness as well as those that have been repressed without dissociation. Repressed memory syndrome, the clinical term used to describe repressed memories, is often compared to psychogenic amnesia, and some sources compare the two as equivalent.[2]

According to proponents of the hypothesis, repressed memories may sometimes be recovered years or decades after the event, most often spontaneously, triggered by a particular smell, taste, or other identifier related to the lost memory, or via suggestion during psychotherapy.[3]

The existence of repressed memories is a controversial topic in psychology; some studies have concluded that it can occur in victims of trauma, while others dispute it. According to the American Psychological Association, it is not currently possible to distinguish a true repressed memory from a false one without corroborating evidence.[4]



The concept was originated by Sigmund Freud in his 1896 essay Zur Ätiologie der Hysterie ("On the etiology of hysteria").[citation needed] Freud abandoned his hypothesis between 1897 and 1905, replacing it during 1920–1923 with his impulse-based concept of Ego, super-ego, and id.


Some research indicates that memories of child sexual abuse and other traumatic incidents may be forgotten.[5][6] Evidence of the spontaneous recovery of traumatic memories has been shown,[7][8][9] and recovered memories of traumatic childhood abuse have been corroborated.[6][10][11]

Van der Kolk and Fisler's research shows that traumatic memories are retrieved, at least at first, in the form of mental imprints that are dissociated. These imprints are of the affective and sensory elements of the traumatic experience. Clients have reported the slow emergence of a personal narrative that can be considered explicit (conscious) memory. The level of emotional significance of a memory correlates directly with the memory's veracity. Studies of subjective reports of memory show that memories of highly significant events are unusually accurate and stable over time.[12] The imprints of traumatic experiences appear to be qualitatively different from those of nontraumatic events. Traumatic memories may be coded differently than ordinary event memories, possibly because of alterations in attentional focusing or the fact that extreme emotional arousal interferes with the memory functions of the hippocampus.[12]

Although research on repressed memory is limited, a few studies have suggested that memories of trauma that are forgotten and later recalled have a similar accuracy rate as trauma memories that had not been forgotten.[2]

One prominent proponent of the theory of repressed memory, and the usage of repressed memory in legal actions brought against alleged abusers, is Lenore Terr, a controversial California psychiatrist who championed the notion that repressed memories can be suddenly resurrected by victims of abuse (such as childhood physical or sexual abuse) through exposure to visual or auditory stimuli. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals challenged Terr's theory, when applied to legal actions and remedies, as unreliable and inconsistent, and ultimately denied the admissibility of repressed memory as evidence in a judicial proceeding (Franklin v. Duncan, 1995).[13][14][15]

There has also been significant questioning of the reality of repressed memories. There is considerable evidence that rather than being pushed out of consciousness, the difficulty with traumatic memories for most people are their intrusiveness and inability to forget.[16] One case that is held up as definitive proof of the reality of repressed memories, recorded by David Corwin[11] has been criticized by Elizabeth Loftus and Melvin Guyer for ignoring the context of the original complaint and falsely presenting the sexual abuse as unequivocal and true when in reality there was no definitive proof.[17]

Psychiatrists Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham are authors of the seminal work on the fallacy of repressed memory, The Myth of Repressed Memory (St. Martin's Press, 1994).


It has been speculated that repression may be one method used by individuals to cope with traumatic memories, by pushing them out of awareness (perhaps as an adaptation via psychogenic amnesia) to allow a child to maintain attachment to a person on whom they are dependent for survival.[18] Researchers have proposed that repression can operate on a social level as well.[19]


The existence of repressed memory recovery has not been completely accepted by mainstream psychology,[20][21][22][23] nor unequivocally proven to exist, and some experts in the field of human memory feel that no credible scientific support exists for the notions of repressed/recovered memories.[24][25] One research report states that a distinction should be made between spontaneously recovered memories and memories recovered during suggestions in therapy.[26]

Legal issues

Some criminal cases have been based on a witness' testimony of recovered repressed memories, often of alleged childhood sexual abuse. In some jurisdictions, the statute of limitations for child abuse cases has been extended to accommodate the phenomena of repressed memories as well as other factors. The repressed memory concept came into wider public awareness in the 1980s and 1990s followed by a reduction of public attention after a series of scandals, lawsuits, and license revocations.[27]

In 1995, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled in Franklin v. Duncan, (cert. 884 FSupp 1435, N.D. Calif.) that repressed memory is not admissible as evidence in a legal action because of its unreliability, inconsistency, unscientific nature, and subject to influence by hearsay and suggestibility. The court overturned the conviction of a man accused of murdering a nine-year-old girl purely based upon the evidence of a 21-year-old repressed memory by a lone witness, who also held a complex personal grudge against the defendant.[14][28][29]

In a 1996 ruling, a US District Court allowed repressed memories entered into evidence in court cases.[30] Jennifer Freyd writes that Ross Cheit's case of suddenly remembered sexual abuse is one of the most well-documented cases available for the public to see. Cheit prevailed in two lawsuits, located five additional victims and tape-recorded a confession.[9]

On 16 December 2005 the Irish Court of Criminal Appeal issued a certificate confirming a Misscarriage of Justice to a former nun Nora Wall whose 1999 conviction for child rape was partly based on Repressed Memory evidence. The judgement stated that: "There was no scientific evidence of any sort adduced to explain the phenomenon of ‘flashbacks’ and/or ‘retrieved memory’, nor was the applicant in any position to meet such a case in the absence of prior notification thereof." [31]

Recovered memory therapy

Recovered memory therapy (RMT) is a term coined by affiliates of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation[32][33] referring to what they described as a range of psychotherapy methods based on recalling memories of abuse that had previously been forgotten by the patient.[34] The term is not listed in DSM-IV or used by mainstream formal psychotherapy modality.[32] Opponents of the therapy advance the hypothesis that therapy can create false memories through suggestion techniques; this hypothesis is controversial and has been neither proven nor disproven. Some research has shown evidence supporting the hypothesis,[35][36] and this evidence is questioned by some researchers.[32][37][38] It is possible for patients who retract their claims- after deciding their recovered memories are false- to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder due to the trauma of illusory memories.[39] According to a book written in 1995, the number of reported retractions is small when compared to the large number of actual child sexual abuse cases.[40]

See also


  1. ^ "Amnesia" entry - Encyclopedia of Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association. Online (licensed) at:
  2. ^ a b Scheflin, A (1999-11-01). "Ground lost: The false memory/recovered memory therapy debate". Psychiatric Times 16 (11). 
  3. ^ Albach, Francine; Peter Paul Moormann, Bob Bermond (December-1996). "Memory recovery of childhood sexual abuse". Dissociation 9 (4): 261–273. ISSN 0896-2863. hdl:1794/1774. 
  4. ^ Questions and Answers about Memories of Childhood Abuse
  5. ^ Williams LM (1994). "Recall of childhood trauma: a prospective study of women's memories of child sexual abuse". J Consult Clin Psychol 62 (6): 1167–76. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.62.6.1167. PMID 7860814. 
  6. ^ a b Bowman, E.S. (1996). "Delayed memories of child abuse: Part I: An overview of research findings on forgetting, remembering, and corroborating trauma". Dissociation 9: 221–231. ; lay summary "Corroboration of child abuse memories". 2006-02-20. Retrieved 2008-01-06. 
  7. ^ Chu, J; Frey L, Ganzel B, Matthews J (May 1999). "Memories of childhood abuse: dissociation, amnesia, and corroboration". American Journal of Psychiatry 156 (5): 749–55. PMID 10327909. 
  8. ^ Duggal, S.; Sroufe, L. A. (April 1998). "Recovered memory of childhood sexual trauma: A documented case from a longitudinal study". Journal of Traumatic Stress 11 (2): 301–321. doi:10.1023/A:1024403220769. PMID 9565917. Retrieved 2007-12-31. 
  9. ^ a b Freyd, Jennifer J. (1996). Betrayal Trauma - The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-06805-x. 
  10. ^ Cheit, Ross E. (1998). "Consider This, Skeptics of Recovered Memory". Ethics & Behavior 8 (2): 141–160. doi:10.1207/s15327019eb0802_4. Retrieved 2007-12-25. 
  11. ^ a b Corwin, D; Olafson E. (1997). "Videotaped Discovery of a Reportedly Unrecallable Memory of Child Sexual Abuse: Comparison with a Childhood Interview Videotaped 11 Years Before". Child Maltreatment 2 (2): 91–112. doi:10.1177/1077559597002002001. Retrieved 2008-01-09. 
  12. ^ a b van der Kolk BA, Fisler R (1995). "Dissociation and the fragmentary nature of traumatic memories: overview and exploratory study". J Trauma Stress 8 (4): 505–25. PMID 8564271. Retrieved 2008-03-22. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ a b
  15. ^ Harry N. MacLean, Once Upon a Time: A True Story of Memory, Murder and the Law. NY: Harper Collins, 1993.
  16. ^ McHugh, PR. Try to remember: Psychiatry's clash over meaning, memory and mind. Dana Press. pp. 45–6. ISBN 1932594396. 
  17. ^ Loftus, EF; Guyer MJ (2002). Who Abused Jane Doe? The Hazards of the Single Case History Part 1. 26. Skeptical Inquirer.  Loftus, EF; Guyer MJ (2002). Who Abused Jane Doe? The Hazards of the Single Case History Part 2. 26. Skeptical Inquirer. 
  18. ^ Freyd, J. (1994). "Betrayal trauma: traumatic amnesia as an adaptive response to childhood abuse" (PDF). Ethics & Behavior 4 (4): 307–330. doi:10.1207/s15327019eb0404_1. Retrieved 2008-01-13. 
  19. ^ Freyd, Jennifer J. (2007). "Archiving Dissociation as a Precaution Against Dissociating Dissociation" (PDF). Journal of Trauma & Dissociation 8 (3). Retrieved 2007-12-29. 
  20. ^ McNally, R.J. (2004). "The Science and Folklore of Traumatic Amnesia". Clinical Psychology Science and Practice 11 (1): 29–33. doi:10.1093/clipsy/bph056. 
  21. ^ McNally RJ (2007). "Dispelling confusion about traumatic dissociative amnesia". Mayo Clin. Proc. 82 (9): 1083–90. doi:10.4065/82.9.1083. PMID 17803876. 
  22. ^ McNally RJ (2004). "Is traumatic amnesia nothing but psychiatric folklore?". Cogn Behav Ther 33 (2): 97–101; discussion 102–4, 109–11. doi:10.1080/16506070410021683. PMID 15279316. 
  23. ^ McNally RJ (2005). "Debunking myths about trauma and memory". Can J Psychiatry 50 (13): 817–22. PMID 16483114. 
  24. ^ Amicus Curiae brief in Taus v. Loftus (Superme Court of California 2006-02-21).
  25. ^ Revisiting the memory wars: repressed/recovered memory and dissociation; ABC TV, Catalyst, 22 Sept. 2011.
  26. ^ Geraerts, E.; Schooler, J.W.; Merckelbach, H.; Jelicic, M.; Hauer, B.J.A.; Ambadar, Z. (2007). "The Reality of Recovered Memories: Corroborating Continuous and Discontinuous Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse" (PDF). Psychological Science 18 (7): 564–568. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01940.x. PMID 17614862. 
  27. ^ Robbins Susan P., The Social and Cultural Context of Satanic Ritual Abuse Allegations, published in Institute for Psychological Therapies magazine, vol 10 1998.[1]
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^ 923 Federal Supplement 286 (D. Mass. 1996); CIVIL ACTION NO.: 92-12139-EFH MEMORANDUM AND ORDER; May 8, 1996
  31. ^
  32. ^ a b c Whitfield, Charles L.; Joyanna L. Silberg, Paul Jay Fink (2001). Misinformation Concerning Child Sexual Abuse and Adult Survivors. Haworth Press. pp. 56. ISBN 0789019019. 
  33. ^ Underwager, Ralph; Hollida Wakefield (October 1994). Return of the Furies: An Investigation into Recovered Memory Therapy. Open Court Pub Co. pp. 360. ISBN 978-0812692716. 
  34. ^ Lief, Harold I (November 1999). "Patients Versus Therapists: Legal Actions Over Recovered Memory Therapy". Psychiatric Times XVI (11). 
  35. ^ Loftus, EF; Pickrell JE (1995). "The formation of false memories" (pdf). Psychiatric Annals 25: 720–725. 
  36. ^ Pezdek, K; Hodge, D. (July–August 1999). "Planting false childhood memories: The role of event plausibility" (pdf). Child Development 70 (4): 887–895. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00064. 
  37. ^ Hammond, D. Corydon; Brown, Daniel P.; Scheflin, Alan W. (1998). Memory, trauma treatment, and the law. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-70254-5. 
  38. ^ Brandon S, Boakes J, Glaser D, Green R (1998). "Recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. Implications for clinical practice". Br J Psychiatry 172 (4): 296–307. doi:10.1192/bjp.172.4.296. PMID 9722329. 
  39. ^ Lambert, K; Lilienfeld SO (2007-10-01). "Brain Stains". Scientific American. Retrieved 2008-01-25. 
  40. ^ Whitfield M.D., Charles L. (1995). Memory and Abuse - Remembering and Healing the Effects of Trauma. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc. pp. 375. ISBN 1-55874-320-0. 

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.