Robert Todd Carroll
A repressed memory is the memory of a traumatic event retained in the unconscious mind, where it is said to affect conscious thought, desire, and action even though there is no conscious memory of the alleged traumatic episode. Most people consciously repress unpleasant experiences. Many psychologists believe that unconscious repression of traumatic experiences, such as sexual abuse or rape, is a defense mechanism which backfires. The unpleasant experience is forgotten but not forgiven. It lurks beneath consciousness and allegedly causes a myriad of psychological and physical problems from bulimia to insomnia.
The theory of unconsciously repressing the memory of traumatic sexual experiences is controversial. There is little scientific evidence to support either the notion that traumatic experiences are unconsciously repressed or that such unconscious memories are significant causal factors in physical or mental illness.
We know people forget things and we know that people sometimes remember things that they had forgotten, but repression claims that there is a process which unconsciously suppresses the memory of a traumatic experience, that impressions of the horrible experience are "stored" in the unconscious mind, and that those impressions while remaining unremembered nevertheless cause pathological thoughts and behavior. Where is the evidence for repression? Why is it that most people do not forget traumatic experiences unless they are rendered unconscious at the time of the experience? Who has demonstrated a single case where a specific traumatic experience in childhood was repressed and the repressed memory of the event, rather than the event itself, caused a specific psychiatric or physical disorder in adulthood?
The scientific evidence regarding memory does not support the widely held notion that unconscious repression of traumas is typical.
Psychologist Lenore Terr, a defender of repressed memory therapy, argues that repression occurs for repeated or multiple traumas, such as in the case of a repeatedly abused child. Schacter notes that "hundreds of studies have shown that repetition of information leads to improved memory, not loss of memory, for that information." He also notes that people who have experienced repeated traumas in war, even children, generally remember their experiences. A person who suffers a great trauma often finds that he she cannot get the event out of her mind or dreams (Sacks). Terr's theory is that the child becomes practiced at repression to banish the awful events from awareness and that forgetting might aid in the child's survival. Her dissociative theory, however, is based on speculation rather than scientific evidence.
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. Most of the controversy centers around recovered memories during repressed memory therapy (RMT). Critics of RMT maintain that many therapists are not helping patients recover repressed memories, but are suggesting and planting false memories of alien abduction, sexual abuse, and satanic rituals.
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Baddeley, Alan D. Human Memory: Theory and Practice (Allyn & Bacon, 1998). $49.00
Baker, Robert A. Hidden Memories: Voices and Visions From Within (Buffalo, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1992.)
Hallinan, Joseph T. "Money for repressed memories repressed," Sacramento Bee, Jan. 12, 1997, Forum.
Loftus, Elizabeth. The Myth of Repressed Memory (New York: St. Martin's, 1994).
Schacter, Daniel L., editor, Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past (harvard University Press, 1997). $17.95
Schacter, Daniel L. Searching for Memory - the brain, the mind, and the past (New York: Basic Books, 1996). $11.20
Robert Todd Carroll