The Debate Over Repressed and Recovered Memories How Memory Works

There is still a fairly heated controversy in the field of psychology about whether or not repressed memories can or should be recovered, as well as whether or not they are accurate. The clearest divide appears to be between mental health practitionersand researchers. In one study, clinicians had a much greater tendency to believe that people repress memories that can be recovered in therapy than the researchers did.

The general public, too, has a belief in repressed memory. Clearly, more research is needed in the area of memory.

Trauma Can Be Forgotten

Most people remember the bad things that happen to them, but sometimes extreme trauma is forgotten. Scientists are studying this, and we are beginning to understand how this occurs. When this forgetting becomes extreme, a dissociative disorder sometimes develops, such as dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue, depersonalization disorder and dissociative identity disorder. These disorders and their relationship to trauma is still being studied.

How Memory Works

Memory is not like a tape recorder. The brain processes information and stores it in different ways. Most of us have had some mildly traumatic experiences, and these experiences sometimes seem to be burned into our brains with a high degree of detail. Scientists are studying the relationship between two parts of the brain, the amygdala and the hippocampus, to understand why this is.

The following statements describe what we know at this time:

  • Moderate trauma can enhance long-term memory. This is the common-sense experience that most of us have, and it makes it difficult to understand how memory for horrible events can be forgotten.
  • Extreme trauma can disrupt long-term storage and leave memories stored as emotions or sensations rather than as memories. Recent research suggests that it can take up to several days to fully store an event in long-term memory.
  • Sensory triggers in the present can cause forgotten material to surface. This is because the material is associated with the trigger through a process known as “state-dependent memory, learning, and behavior.”
  • “False memories” of mildly traumatic events have been created in the laboratory.It is unclear to what extent this occurs in other settings.
  • Studies have documented that people who live through extreme trauma sometimes forget the trauma. The memory of the trauma can return later in life, usually beginning in the form of sensations or emotions, sometimes involving “flashbacks” where the person feels like they are reliving the memory. This material gradually becomes more integrated until it resembles other memories.

The Debate Over Recovered Memories

Are recovered memories necessarily true? There is much debate about this. Some therapists who work with trauma survivors believe that the memories are true because they are accompanied by such extreme emotions. Other therapists have reported that some of their patients have recovered memories which could not have been true (a memory of being decapitated, for example).

Some groups have claimed that therapists are “implanting memories” or causing false memories in vulnerable patients by suggesting that they are victims of abuse when no abuse occurred. Some therapists do seem to have persuaded patients that their symptoms were due to abuse when they did not know this to be true. This was never considered good therapeutic practice, and most therapists are careful not to suggest a cause for a symptom unless the patient reports the cause.

There is some research suggesting that false memories for mild trauma can be created in the laboratory. In one study, suggestions were made that children had been lost in a shopping mall. Many of the children later came to believe that this was a real memory. Note: It is not ethical to suggest memories of severe trauma in a laboratory setting.

Finding Middle Ground on Recovered Memories

I have worked with some patients who have “recovered memories” of childhood abuse. My stance regarding the truth of their memories is that I don’t know if these memories are true or not. In most cases, I believe something happened to them, because their symptoms are consistent with their memories. In most cases they have some memories of abuse which are continuous memories, and these are often consistent with the recovered memories. We work with the material from the past only when it gets in the way of the present. The memories are real for the patient, and that is what is most important in therapy. I do not encourage them to confront parents or other abusers because this is seldom helpful and often hurtful. It is extremely important for therapists not to ask leading questions or to suggest that certain events may have occurred.

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