Repressed Memory Recovery: Useful Tool or Misleading Practice?

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Repression describes the unconscious act of burying distressing memories or feelings. Once buried, these memories are no longer a part of a person’s awareness, unless they someday retrieve, or uncover, the memories.

Psychologists have long debated the recovery of repressed memories and whether memories that people retrieve are real.

An Overview of Repression Psychology

Memory repression, a psychological concept introduced by Sigmund Freud, is a controversial topic. According to Freud, a person faced with something too difficult to accept might unconsciously reject that information. They then effectively forget what happened, though Freud found some people seemed to later recall lost memories, particularly under hypnosis.

The late 1980s and 1990s saw a rise in allegations of child abuse in the United States as many people began to recall, often with the help of counselors, memories of abuse and other traumatic events they said they had repressed. The number of claims that surfaced led many psychologists and other experts to question whether these memories were valid.

Researchers cannot ethically study repression of traumatic memories in a controlled setting, so it’s difficult to know exactly how repression works. Studies of people who have recovered repressed memories have yielded inconclusive results. Some repressed “memories” were eventually found to be false, while others may have been real memories that truly were repressed. One study from 1992 found that, among 100 women who had experienced abuse, 38 either did not remember the abuse or denied it.

According to the American Psychological Association, abuse and trauma can affect children and adults in different ways. Children, for example, may have trouble storing their memories after experiencing abuse, which can affect how they remember what happened. Other mechanisms such as dissociation may also affect memory. If a person dissociates, they may not have access to their memory for some time, perhaps years. But this is not the same as repression.

Do Repressed Memories Hide Psychological Trauma?

According to repression theory, repressed or suppressed (consciously forgotten) traumatic memories may contribute to emotional distress and potentially affect behavior and mental health.

There’s no hard evidence either for or against the repression of traumatic memories. Many researchers and mental health professionals do agree it may be possible to repress and later recover memories, but many also generally agree this is most likely quite rare. Some experts believe memories may be repressed, but that once these memories are lost, they can’t be recovered.

Some experts believe memories may be repressed, but that once these memories are lost, they can’t be recovered.

Many people have recalled memories while already working with a therapist or counselor, and some recalled memories under hypnosis. Some experts believe this implies retrieved memories are often suggested and therefore likely to be false. Other people have recalled memories of abuse or another traumatic event on their own before reaching out for counseling or other support as a result. While some of these individuals may have experienced mental health issues that contributed to their desire to seek help, not every person experienced psychological distress before recalling memories.

Research on repressed memories and trauma has yielded inconclusive results. A 2012 study showed people may falsely remember details of traumatic events, and other research has supported this. Extensive research has also shown it’s possible to suggest false memories to people, who later recalled these fake memories as vividly as their true memories.

The results of a 2017 research review indicate people with posttraumatic stress (PTSD), depression, or a history of trauma may be more likely to create false memories when they’re exposed to information that relates to their experience.

On the other hand, a 2015 study looking at the retrieval of stressful memories in mice found that mice only remembered an electric shock when they returned to the same brain state. This suggests memories could possibly be repressed until the brain returns to a similar state of stress. This knowledge has implications for treatment, study authors say, since when memories can’t be accessed they may put a person at risk for mental health concerns and affect treatment outcomes.

The position of the APA is that most people who experience abuse or other trauma in childhood remember at least part of what happened. The APA does not deny the possibility of repressed memories of abuse and recommends people who believe they may have recovered memories of abuse reach out to a therapist or counselor. A trained, ethical mental health professional can offer help and support without immediately denying or validating the recovered memory.

False Memory Syndrome: An Obstacle on the Path to Memory Recovery

Attempting to recover repressed memories poses issues for consideration. Many retrieved memories of childhood sexual abuse were recalled through hypnosis or guided visualization. Some mental health experts believe these techniques are not highly reliable. Attempts to retrieve repressed memories also created new symptoms in some people getting help for other mental health issues.

Multiple studies have shown it’s possible to implant false memories in people, who then believe and describe the memories even more vividly than actual memories. It’s generally impossible to determine whether most recovered memories are true or false. People often recall what happened in clear detail, and they may be impacted by what they remember. A 2018 study, on the other hand, found that recovered memories in people not receiving mental health treatment were often vague or unclear. This is quite different from descriptions of reportedly retrieved memories.

False memory syndrome describes a person’s belief that recovered “memories” are real when they are not, to the extent that it may affect their life and emotional health. Research has found that some people, particularly those already getting help for certain mental health concerns, may be more suggestible and more likely to develop false memories if certain events are suggested. Because recovered memories of sexual abuse can have a serious impact on an individual’s life, many experts consider determining whether recovered memories might be true a matter of importance.

If Repression Isn’t the Answer, What Is?

People who experience certain mental health concerns or emotional distress may wonder what contributed to their symptoms. Risk factors for a number of mental health conditions include childhood abuse and trauma. Many people diagnosed with certain concerns, such as borderline personality, do have a past history of abuse or neglect. But this factor may be linked to these conditions so strongly that some believe it’s always the cause, not merely one of many possible contributing factors.

One study found many people who thought they would probably seek therapy in the future also believed they had repressed memories of abuse that therapy could help them recover. Study authors say this relationship suggests these people are at higher risk for creating false memories in therapy, simply by believing they could have these memories.

It’s important to remember many factors contribute to the development of mental health issues. Trauma can play a part, but it isn’t always the cause. Genetics, brain chemistry, present patterns of relating to others, and environmental factors can all affect mental health and lead to emotional distress.

Conclusion

It’s not yet known exactly how or why some people might repress traumatic memories and later recover them. Memory repression is a controversial topic, and scientists and psychologists have a range of opinions on the subject.

Seeking support is important, whether the recalled memory is true or false. If you experience emotional distress or other mental health symptoms, it’s important to reach out. If memories of abuse affect you negatively, a therapist or counselor can help you work toward healing. A good therapist will remain unbiased during treatment. They won’t accuse you of making up the memory. But they also won’t assure you the memory must be true.

Mental health experts encourage both mental health professionals and people seeking help to approach the possibility of repressed memories with caution. Researchers do not discount all recovered memories, but “recovered” memories may be false, particularly when retrieved through guidance or suggestion.

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