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 practitioners and researchers.
Trauma Can Be Forgotten
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.
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 are still being studied.
The Double-Edged Sword of Childhood Trauma and Dissociation
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. Here's what we know at this time: Moderate trauma can enhance long-term memory.
Disproving the idea of repressed memory
In response to the rising number of claims of childhood sexual abuse in the 1980s, as well as numerous cases in which people who had claimed to be victims later recanted those claims in the 1990s and pointed to dubious therapeutic techniques, researchers at McLean Hospital’s Biological Psychiatry Lab set out to prove whether repressed memory was a legitimate psychological phenomenon. Dr. Harrison Pope reasoned that if repressed memory existed in the same way that dementia, anxiety and other brain capabilities did, there would be historical documentation of it, as there is of all of the other diagnoses. He and a group of esteemed colleagues searched for the earliest recorded citation or example of repressed memory, finding that though it became common in the 19th century, there was nothing any earlier. They then publicized a reward asking outsiders to find examples in either fiction or nonfiction before 1800. The closest example submitted came from an opera performed in Paris in 1786. The group concluded that the notion of repressed memory was a cultural one rather than a psychological one and that it stemmed from the rise of Romanticism. (Harvard Magazine)
Recovering Repressed Memories
How do you determine if you have repressed memories? Sometimes, we already know. Through looking at old family photos, talking to friends, or just recalling our own life’s storyline we have recognized that we have a gap or two. It’s not uncommon for a client to come into my office reporting that they know they’re missing memories from their childhood because their siblings have talked about events they themselves cannot recall.
But sometimes we might have only a vague suspicion that we are missing a memory because something, somehow just doesn’t add up when we think about the chronology of our past. How do we take a memory accounting and see if we are, indeed, missing a chunk of time, or two or even more? Creating a timeline of our lives is the best tool I’ve found to do that.
Get out a tablet of paper and turn it horizontally.
If you suffer from repressed, I will advise you have a journal write down all your daily occurrences and Start with your birth and move forward, sketching out a chronologically ordered story of your life marked by significant moments such as births, deaths, marriages, divorces, graduations, job beginnings, and endings, moves, traumatic events, serious illnesses, and any other events that stand out as major. I once did this with a family that had suffered significant trauma and abuse. It took us five sessions and enough poster paper to cover all four walls of my office, but in comparing their three different recollections of their childhood we discovered each had multiple memory gaps.
When you’re looking for repressed memories focus in particular on events that were traumatic: deaths, divorces, injuries, wars, and times when other family members experienced significant distress. For example: when your parents divorced during your childhood when Uncle Thomas disappeared for two years and your mother was consistently distressed about it when your sister was hospitalized multiple times in her childhood with various illnesses, when your brother was killed in a war (declared or undeclared)
This is the common-sense experience that most of us have, and it makes it difficult to understand how the memory of horrible events can be forgotten.
Extreme trauma can disrupt long-term storage and leave memories stored as emotions or sensations rather than as memories. 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 the 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.6 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.7 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.
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 that 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.