Repressed Memories

Memory is a fascinating aspect of psychology. Even though memory is clearly a neurological function, several applications to psychology exist. In clinical applications, memory can serve as a powerful tool in the diagnosis and treatment of neurotic and psychotic disorders. Many of these memories have been pushed out of the individual’s consciousness because it is too traumatic to remember. These are called repressed memories. Recalling repressed memories are often vital to the diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders.

A repressed memory is known by its technical moniker as “dissociative amnesia. ” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV) published in 1994 defines dissociative amnesia as the inability to recall important personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature, that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness” (DSM-IV, 1994, p. 477). The manual goes on to characterize the inability to recall as one in which a series of gaps in the life history exist, usually as a result of a traumatic event (DSM-IV, 1994).

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If a person experiences a horrific event, the mind, as a means of psychological protection, will forget that event. Many people doubt the existence of repressed memory, calling it instead false memory gained by the desire for money, attention or the benefit of an overzealous psychologist. This opinion is strengthened by the recent increase in accusations and subsequent media attention concerning repressed memories that have been recalled. A famous case concerns a young girl who watcher her father murder her eight-year-old friend.

On the strength of Eileen Franklin’s recalled memory of over 20 years, her father, George Franklin, was found guilty of murder (Loftus, 1993). This inspired several researchers to denounce the viability of recalled memories as testimony in court. The debate continues today. Regardless of whether or not repressed memories are perfectly accurate or not, their usefulness in therapy is important. First, one needs to understand why memories might be repressed in the first place. Freyd (1994) uses childhood abuse as an illustrative example.

Betrayal trauma theory suggests that psychogenic amnesia is an adaptive response to childhood abuse: “When a parent or other powerful figure violates a fundamental ethic of human relationships, victims may need to remain unaware of the trauma not to reduce suffering but rather to promote survival. ” Thus, the child forgets the horrifying experience in order to continue surviving. Many individuals wonder how common this type of repression is. In the mid 1990s, it seemed like everyone was leaping up with a repressed memory. Rosanne Barr told her story to People Magazine and several other public figures seemed to have a story to tell.

Movies and televisions shows featured repressed memory as plotlines. The fervor even bled into courtrooms (Loftus, 1993). However, the research community did not let up on its belief that repressed memories were an important part of the psyche of many individuals. In answering the question of how common repressed memories are, there is no real way to get a proven answer. Loftus (1993) says “There are few satisfying ways to discover the answer, because we are in the odd position of asking people about a memory for forgetting a memory. For the moment, figures range from 18% to 59%. ” This is still quite a few repressed memories.

The usefulness of repressed memories in therapy are also up for scrutiny. Most therapists agree that unlocking painful memories is important for personal healing even if they doubt that memory may be 100% exact. Repressed Memory Therapy (RMT) can occur through a variety of ways, such as hypnosis, visualization, group therapy and trance writing uses a variety of methods–including hypnosis, visualization, group therapy, and trance writing (Carroll, 2003). Hypnosis and trance writing are risky and have not led to any definitively positive results in treatment. Group therapy can be helpful if it is carefully mediated and monitored.

Without the mediation, the group members can lead each other through a trail of delusions. Thus the line between reality and illusion become blurred. Carroll (2003) asserts that the role of the therapist is key to determining the usefulness of the therapy for the patient. If the therapist in any way plants ideas in the patient’s mind, then suddenly the focus is off of the patient and on the therapist (Carroll, 2003). If this occurs, the therapy will not work. However, if the therapist does not enter into the relationship with any preconceived ideas, then the therapy can be effective.

The therapist can take whatever the client says is a memory at face value and encourage the patient to explore its meanings. These meanings might be realistic or they might be symbolic (Carroll, 2003). For example if a subject suddenly recalls the memory of being chased by a bear the therapist can conclude one of two things. First, the subject may have actually had a terrifying encounter with a bear on a camping trip, and his brain has chosen to repress it. Second, the bear could be a symbol for another problem within the subjects life, and it is up to the subject to discover, with the therapists help, what the problem is.

Repressed memory has been the subject of much debate. One thing is for certain. Many people claim to suddenly remember, often vividly, an incident from childhood. Psychological research does show that many individuals do suffer from a type of amnesia as a result of emotional trauma. Whether or not these memories are actual representations of reality, symbolic representations of a problem, or simple false confabulations, they are still real to the individual. With a therapist’s objective and unbiased help, the subject can use them to work through problems in his life.