Friday, March 02, 2007

There is no such thing as a "repressed memory"

A few nights ago, I shocked my class by making the statement, "there are no such things as repressed memories". People seemed quite bothered by that. I needed to leave early from the class, so I wanted to publish some of my musings on the issue.

First, why is the concept of "repressed memory" so important to a school psychologist (or, why is it important for a school psychologist to know that there is no such thing as a repressed memory?)? It has particular relevance in cases of suspected or alleged physical and sexual abuse. It is important for school psychologists to understand how memory works and why the repressed memory is an urban psychological myth.

Second, let's get some clarity:
  • 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 idea of "dissociative amnesia" makes the assumption that memory repression is possible. 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
  • The concept was originated by Sigmund Freud in his 1896 essay On the etiology of hysteria.
    Freud abandoned his theory between 1897-1905, and during 1920-1923 replaced it with his impulse-based concept of Id, Super-ego, and Ego.

There were two principle reasons that Freud abandoned his theory of repressed memory (Freud, Sigmund 1952. Zur Geschichte der analytischen Bewegung, from: Gesammelte Werke in Einzelbänden Volume 10)

  • he increasingly came upon evidences in individual cases logically outruling any possibility the 'recovered' events could have occurred
  • 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.

This is an important set of points, as the father of psychoanalysis, quickly retracted the construct of "repressed memory" for the same reason that modern researchers have also rejected this notion.

Third you may ask if there is there any scientific basis for the construct of a "repressed memory"? Well, there are some conjectures and possibilities. For example, one theory discusses how the hippocampus may selectively choose to not consolidate memories which are traumatic. Others point to the role of cortisol damage to the hippocampus. These "hypotheses" are explored 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.

I will tell you how it all turns out. These are just conjectures which don't make sense on any level neurologically.

Cortisol does indeed cause damage to the hippocampal structures and loops, but it does not erase traumatic events. In fact, what we have identified in PTSD is that many people have re-occurrences of the traumatic event, so the event memory is on a constant rewind. And, while cortisol damage may affect the person's accurate recollection of the trauma, there will still be a recollection that the event took place.

Studies of over than 10,000 trauma victims found none that repressed or recovered memories of trauma. (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). 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. (McNally RJ. The science and folklore of traumatic amnesia. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 11:29-33, 2004).

Then we get to young children. Young children's memory is incredibly inaccurate, as their hippocampal structures are developing from conception until about three years old. Although they may forget (I've blogged on this before), they do not "repress" the memory - they just developmentally cannot consolidate memories effectively and cannot recall them effectively.

Another difference is actual amnesia following a trauma. This is not due to any psychic events impinging upon mental makeup. Retrograde amnesia is a real neurological issue which comes about through some physical assault to the brain which causes hippocampal structures to temporarily (or in some cases permanently) not recall as effectively or efficiently. The important aspect of retrograde amnesia is that it is caused by physical etiologies and not by psychic or psychological etiology.

Later I will discuss some court cases which have impacted this area.


heavelax said...

I follow all of the points here, but I still have a question. In class,you stated something to the effect that it would not make sense to repress a memory; we remember things for survival (i.e. if someone hurts us, we remember the person/incident in order to stay away from that person in the future). This makes absolute sense, but what about a child who is unable to "stay away" from that person who is inflicting harm? Wouldn't that child need to employ another 'survival technique'? Perhaps a technique that allows that child to mentally escape? Additionally, I have recently read some articles desciribing the self-destructive behavior of "cutting." In many of the interviews with the person who is cutting themselves, the cutter claims "not remembering" what happened and "waking up" with blood on their body and wounds. Are psychologists to believe that these people actually do remember their acts?

Andrew Livanis said...

In the case of the first situation, we need to seperate two things - recalling a situation as well as performing future behaviors. A child who has been abused may indeed maintain a close distance with that abuser, especially since, the abuser may be the parent. There are actually several studies that have identified varying levels of attachment despite abuse.

However, this does not mean that the child is not recalling the event.

What we may actually see with this child is that s/he may develop difficulties with attachment which may play out in later interactions (the expectation that in order to be loved, one must be hit or abused on some way).

With your second issue, in terms of cutting, I am not familiar with that research - are you quoting from a popular book or a psychological article.

There are several issues to examine.

First - is there a repression of memory, a temporary amnesia due to loss of blood and physical assault of the body or do these individuals truly not remember?

Second - are these individuals ingesting other substances, which may cause "forgetting" or inappropriate processing of information?

Third - do we know if there are differences between the effects of other-abuse vs. self-abuse? I'm not sure.