Do People Really Have Repressed Memories or Is It Just Things They’ve Forgotten?

Astryx_x asks: Do suppressed memories actually exist?

We’ve all seen it in movies- a character will be going along in their lives blissfully unaware of some extremely traumatic event in their long distant past… that is, until a bit of syrup dribbles onto their cheek and they are transported back in their mind to that time they were abducted by aliens. Suddenly, they remember everything. But do such repressed memories actually exist?

It turns out that while only a few decades ago the idea of repressed memories was an extremely popular notion among psychologists, including many a person being thrown in prison when someone would randomly recover such a traumatic memory from their childhood after undergoing psychotherapy to retrieve it, the issue is a fair bit more controversial today.

According to a study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, published in the Journal of the Association for Psychological Science in 2013, approximately 60%-90% of psychologists (varying based on therapist type) who are clinicians still believe that repressed memories exist in some cases, though generally considered to be rare. Further, 43%-75% think these repressed memories can be retrieved with proper methods. In stark contrast, approximately 70% of research psychologist believe there is no such thing as repressed memories. So what’s going on here?

To begin with, on the research psychologist side, their stance is largely backed by the fact that, as noted by famed psychologist Chris French of the University of London, “There is no convincing evidence to support the existence of the psychoanalytic concept of repression, despite it being a widely accepted concept.”

Despite this, many clinicians still believe it is. As to why, Lawrence Patihis of the aforementioned study illustrating the divide between clinicians and researchers speculates:

clinicians are more apt to trust clinical experience, while researchers tend to trust experimental research… there are many anecdotal reports of cures coming from retrieving repressed memories, but at the same time, credible experimental evidence of it does not exist…

Further stacking the evidence on the side of the researchers, it turns out that traumatic events that induce a strong emotional response, which are so often the subject of supposed repressed memories, tend to be the ones we remember the best.

That said, traumatic events can, and often are, ultimately forgotten, particularly when said events don’t actually induce a significant emotional response- for instance, if a child and not really understanding the event was of what would normally be categorized as the traumatic variety and thus there isn’t an associated strong emotional response. These tend to be forgotten at much higher rates, similar to what you’d expect from any given memory.

In fact, in one study Recall of Childhood Trauma: A Prospective Study of Women’s Memories of Child Sexual Abuse, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, it’s noted that 38% of the adults studied who had a high probability of being abused as children based on documented evidence had forgotten about it as adults.

In one case, one of the participants who was adamant she was never sexually abused, was asked a follow up question if she knew anyone that had been “in trouble for his or her sexual behavior”. Eventually the woman did remember her uncle had. She stated: “I never met my uncle, he died before I was born. You see, he molested a little boy. When the little boy’s mother found out that her son was molested, she took a butcher knife and stabbed my uncle in the heart, killing him.”

In fact, that is exactly what happened, except in this case, the woman being interviewed was one of three children the uncle had allegedly done this to, resulting in the mother of one of the children murdering him with a knife. The now adult woman in the study had only been four years old then- a time when few remember anything of their lives, traumatic or not.

Similarly, in a case study reported by The Recovered Memory Project, a woman named Claudia was involved in a group therapy session to help with weight loss when for whatever reason she began remembering being sexually abused by her older brother when she was little. Her brother had died in Vietnam approximately 15 years before, and their parents had essentially left his room and belongings alone. When she returned home, Claudia searched the room and found not only a set of handcuffs in his closet, but a diary in which he supposedly recorded his, to quote, “sexual experiments with his sister.”

From many such cases as these, as should come as no surprise to anyone- humans forget things all the time, and later sometimes remember them. It’s just that studies to date don’t really demonstrate that the brain is actively repressing these memories as is so widely believed among the general public, and to a lesser extent clinical psychologists.

While this might otherwise be a mundane issue only worth psychologists arguing over, it turns out it’s actually a pretty pernicious one thanks to the way clinicians classically tried to recover these memories, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s when the idea of recovering repressed memories was en vogue. This was often done in cases when forgotten traumatic events were thought by the therapists as the cause of things like depression and anxiety in a given client.

It turns out, many of the methods used by psychologists came to be discovered as textbook ways to get people to create false memories.

To begin with, to illustrate how easy it is to plant a false memory, in one early study, now famed memory researcher Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and co. decided to see if they could implant a false memory into people of having been lost at a shopping mall when five years old.  Their method here, as explained by Dr. Loftus was,

We prepared a booklet for each participant containing one-paragraph stories about three events that had actually happened to him or her and one that had not. We constructed the false event using information about a plausible shopping trip provided by a relative, who also verified that the participant had not in fact been lost at about the age of five. The lost-in-the-mall scenario included the following elements: lost for an extended period, crying, aid and comfort by an elderly woman and, finally, reunion with the family.

What they ultimately found was after asking people to recall the events with as much detail as possible (a question many a clinical psychologist would ask, among other methods), almost 1/3 of the people involved remembered this experience.

In yet another similar study at Western Washington University, parents of students reported various events that had happened to their children. The researchers then asked the students if they could give their version of the story to illustrate how people remember things differently. They also planted a false story within these real ones about either being hospitalized as a child or having had a birthday party with a clown and pizza at the age of 5. It was also confirmed with the parents that neither of those things had ever happened.

Illustrating the power of suggestion, not a single student remembered the false event the first time they were interviewed about it. Yet in the second interview 1/5th of them remembered it after thinking about it for a while. Some even eventually remembered the event in incredible detail, including specific people visiting them in the hospital, for instance.

In yet another study by that same research group, this time they went with the subjects having to evacuate a store as a child when the sprinkler system went off, drenching everyone, or having spilled a giant bowl of punch at a wedding directly on the parent’s of the bride.  Once again, nobody remembered the false memory the first time. But the second time almost 1/5th did, including, again, with some remembering remarkably vivid and small details.

Going yet more traumatic and somewhat controversial, there have been studies where researchers implanted false memories of everything from people almost drowning as children to being demon possessed- all with similar results.

Of course, in many of these cases, the idea was fed to the subjects and some of them then created the detailed false memories based on that suggestion. So how did this correlate to methods used by clinical psychologists in the late 20th century and to a lesser extent now?

As one example, we have imagination therapy, where patients are asked to imagine an often traumatic event and not worry about whether it happened or not- a once very popular method for trying to draw out repressed or forgotten memories.

For example, as famed sex therapist Wendy Matlz once stated, she would tell her patients to “Spend time imaging that you were sexually abused, without worrying about accuracy proving anything, or having your ideas make sense …. Ask yourself … these questions: What time of day is it? Where are you? Indoors or outdoors? What kind of things are happening? Is there one or more person with you?… Who would have been likely perpetrators? When were you most vulnerable to sexual abuse in your life?”

In studies looking at whether this type of imagination therapy increases the likelihood of implanting a false memory, one study’s subjects were asked a series of questions about a made up event of running toward a window as a child then tripping and breaking the window with their hand as they fell. It turns out the act of imagining that it happened increased about 1 in 4 of the participant’s confidence that the event had actually happened, vs. only about 1 in 10 reporting an increase in confidence when not asked to imagine the event had occurred.

Other studies have shown that the more frequently subjects were made to imagine a made up event, the more and more likely they are to later state that the event actually happened.

In yet another study, using these type of guided methods as well as hypnosis, participants were made to supposedly recover memories from directly after they were first born. Of course, the researchers at Carleton University actually simply implanted specific memories. Incredibly, 95% of the people being studied using guided mnemonic restructuring came to remember some memories from directly after birth and on the other hand, 70% who were subjected to hypnosis also recovered these so-called “impossible memories”.  Also important to note was that about half of both groups also remembered the specific memory from shortly after being born that the researchers had completely made up.

Dr. Loftus states of all this,

Research is beginning to give us an understanding of how false memories of complete, emotional and self-participatory experiences are created in adults. First, there are social demands on individuals to remember; for instance, researchers exert some pressure on participants in a study to come up with memories. Second, memory construction by imagining events can be explicitly encouraged when people are having trouble remembering. And, finally, individuals can be encouraged not to think about whether their constructions are real or not. Creation of false memories is most likely to occur when these external factors are present, whether in an experimental setting, in a therapeutic setting or during everyday activities.

This very unfortunately resulted in cases like Nadean Cool. In 1986, she went to see a psychiatrist who in turn used a variety of popular techniques including hypnosis to try to see if she had any repressed memories about being abused as a child. In the end, what surfaced were memories of being raped, being forced into bestiality, eating babies, watching her friend get murdered, being forced to be involved in a satanic cult, etc. At one point the psychiatrist in question even decided she had at least 120 distinct personalities, one of which was somehow that of a duck. And then to add to the bizarreness of the whole thing, the psychiatrist had an exorcism performed on her to get Satan out of her body…

Of course, after years of this, it ultimately became clear none of these things had actually happened to her and they were simply false memories inadvertently implanted by her psychiatrist over time using these various methods.

In another famous case, one Beth Rutherford’s therapists used similar methods to try to recover repressed memories in 1992, only to have her vividly remember her mother holding her down while her father, a minister, raped her countless times over the course of seven years, starting when she was just seven years old. This included twice getting her pregnant and then painfully aborting the pregnancies using a coat hangar…

Naturally, the whole thing ruined her father’s career and reputation, among other devastating effects on all involved. But it turns out none of that actually happened either, which Beth ultimately discovered, among other evidence, when she went in for an examination and it turns out not only was it very clear she’d never been pregnant, but it was also the opinion of her doctors that she was clearly still a virgin.

Naturally, in both the cases of Beth and Nadean, neither were too pleased at having been put through all that mental trauma, plus having put others they loved through similar stress and hardship, when it was eventually demonstrated that none of these recovered memories ever happened.

Perhaps the most famous case of all of these was that of Eileen Franklin, who would later go on to author a book called Sins of the Father documenting the saga as she saw it. In her case, when she was a child one of her friends, eight year old Susan Nason, was raped and murdered. Nason’s body was discovered two months later, but the killer never identified. That is, until Eileen was an adult and her own daughter allegedly turned to look at her one day and reminded her so much of her friend, that suddenly she remembered witnessing her own father, George Franklin, raping and murdering Nason right in front of her.

Soon enough, Franklin was arrested, tried and convicted, despite there being no real evidence other than this recovered memory.

Finally, six years after being imprisoned, the ruling was overturned by a federal appeals court who, among other things, noted that the prosecutors’ entire case depended on the accuracy of repressed memories which were unreliable. Yet, in this case were taken as absolute fact, despite the lack of corroborating evidence. The appeals court also criticized the judge involved for not allowing the defense to introduce evidence that all of the pertinent facts of the case Eileen supposedly remembered had actually appeared in news accounts of the crime which Eileen was privy too.

This was particularly important as much of the confidence that Eileen’s memories were real came from the fact that many of the details she recalled did indeed match up with the evidence in the case.

Not long after Franklin was released after six years in prison, prosecutors were initially going to forge ahead to attempt to get Franklin thrown back behind bars. But then a few pertinent pieces of information came out that resulted in them moving to dismiss the charges.

First, Eileen had alleged that she had recovered another memory of her father raping and murdering someone else, this time an 18 year old woman whose murder at that point was also unsolved. However, when a DNA test was done on the semen recovered in the case it didn’t match George Franklin’s DNA. Further, minutes from a meeting at his work at the time this particular murder took place showed Franklin had been at that meeting at the fire station he had worked at. Thus, unless he had discovered a way to be two places at once, he couldn’t have done it.

The nail in the coffin on the origin case was when Eileen’s sister, Janice, told the prosecutors that Eileen allegedly told her that she’d remembered the events of the case in question while being hypnotized, contrary to what Eileen and Janice had stated during the trial. If true, this made those memories unreliable in the eyes of the court thanks to a Supreme Court ruling on a similar case, and thus the prosecution finally decided to have the charges dismissed.

Eileen still, however, at least at that point, firmly maintained she remembered these things happening and was still convinced her father was guilty of this and other alleged crimes from later recovered memories she had of him raping her as well. But as the aforementioned psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, who was called to testify in this particular case, noted during the whole ordeal,

I have little doubt that Eileen Franklin believes with every cell of her being that her father murdered Susan Nason. But I believe there is a very real possibility that the whole concoction was spun not from solid facts but from the vaporous breezes of wishes, dreams, fears, desires. Eileen’s mind, operating independently of reality, went about its business of collecting ambiguities and inconsistencies and wrapping them up into a sensible package, revealing to her in one blinding moment of insight a coherent picture of the past that was nevertheless completely and utterly false. Eileen’s story is her truth, but I believe it is a truth that never happened.

Illustrating the potential scope of the problem of false memories and court cases, Dr. Loftus would later state in her TED talk,

In one project in the United States, information has been gathered on 300 innocent people, 300 defendants who were convicted of crimes they didn’t do. They spent 10, 20, 30 years in prison for these crimes, and now DNA testing has proven that they are actually innocent. And when those cases have been analyzed, three quarters of them are due to… faulty eyewitness memory.

Of course, moving back to recovered memories, there really are people who were abused or witnessed or endured traumatic things as children and then later completely forgot about it, so few are willing to reject the memories of everyone who has such recollections later in life, even when “recovered” through therapy. It’s just that, as Dr. Loftus states,

The one take home message… is this: Just because someone tells you something with a lot of confidence and detail and emotion, it doesn’t mean it actually happened. You need independent corroboration to know whether you’re dealing with an authentic memory, or something that is a product of some other process.

She goes on, “…many people believe that memory works like a recording device. You just record the information, then you call it up and play it back when you want to answer questions or identify images. But decades of work in psychology has shown that this just isn’t true. Our memories are constructive. They’re reconstructive. Memory works a little bit more like a Wikipedia page: You can go in there and change it, but so can other people.”

So to sum up- while some psychologists still think repressed memories are a thing, there really isn’t presently much data backing up the notion vs the simpler explanation that people have just forgotten things like they forget most of what happens in their lives. Further, given that it’s absurdly easy to get people to remember things, even of the extremely traumatic variety, that never actually happened, trying to distinguish between real and false memories is something of an effort in futility without outside hard evidence.

In the end, it turns out human memory is incredibly fallible, but few of us want to accept that so much of what we remember in life didn’t happen quite, or in some cases at all, like we remember it. This, unfortunately, occasionally leads to people being convicted of sometimes even extreme crimes that they didn’t actually commit.

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6 comments

  • Excellent article! That was very interesting.

  • Forgotten in Colorado

    I was of the school of thought that repressed memories were the stuff of fiction—mostly—but then something happened to me that convinced me otherwise.

    I don’t know if using the word “repressed” is the best way to name or explain it, but I went through a lot of things in my childhood and my early teen years which, by the time I was a young adult, I’d put out of my mind in some way—in some cases, I didn’t remember them at all.

    Cut to a couple of decades later… I was given a small box of old photos and report cards that belonged to my brother and I, and while looking through them, a ton of these forgotten—bad—experiences and situations came flooding back.

    I’m surprised at how much I’d forgotten, how many hurtful things, and I know there’s still more that I’d only remember if given the right prompting. Maybe it’s not so far-fetched after all—this experience has made a believer out of me, anyway.

    • That means you had simply forgotten them. Repression refers to a psychological process whereby the brain buries memories which are too painful to face. Whether that occurs is an open question. (Of course, if you don’t want to think of painful events, you may well put them out of mind, and they mind gradually slip out of your memory.)

  • I’ve personally experienced having repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse come back in middle-age. In my case, there was no prompting whatsoever and from what I can ascertain, this is quite common among survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

    I found the arguments presented in this article very one-sided, bordering on offensive to those who have been victimized as children.

  • Well, two of my co-workers were abused as children, and they had NO trouble recalling the events…these weren’t “repressed” at all. They were just reticent about them…it was only after being in sympathetic company that they talked about it at all. But they had NO problem remembering them. That is why I had skepticism about the whole “repressed memory” thing when it was the fad back in the nineties…

    • I became very skeptical of any kind of ‘recovered memory’ stories after the ‘satanic cult day care’ scare of the 80’s which was a precursor to the sensationalized ‘recovered memory’ stories of the 90’s … the cult daycare crapola was proven easily and often to be utter bullpucky and was primarily caused by adults with an axe to grind using their positions of authority and responsibility to brainwash little kids into agreeing with the ridiculous (false) stories made out of whole cloth.

      That being said, lots of people have lived through traumatic events as children, and many have pushed those memories to the backs of their minds, but I don’t know if that qualifies as ‘repressed’ memories. I suspect that some form of unconscious mental blocking can occur, but I’m pretty sure that pop psychology therapeutic procedures (including hypnotism) can insert false memories as easily as discover repressed real memories.

      My rule of thumb: you suddenly recall something that happened years ago without any external prompting? Probably a true memory. You suddenly recall something old but only after some form of concerted psychological intrusion (therapy, hypnotism)? Probably not a true memory.

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