Is it really possible for the brain to block out traumatic memories? If so, how is it possible? Psychologists and experts in the addiction and recovery arena seem to be more accepting that repressed memories are legitimate, while scientists as a group don’t seem to be convinced.
An All-Too-Common Story
Freda was six years old when her neighbor raped her behind the tool shed in his backyard. She never told anyone about what happened. It was just too embarrassing to say out loud. Fifteen years later, Freda was walking through a large franchise hardware store. She walked past the row of model tool sheds in the parking lot. All of a sudden, she saw in her mind the old neighbor’s tool shed. She saw flashes of the rape and stopped dead in her tracks. She forgot where she was and suddenly was gasping for air. Freda spent the next few days going over and over the rape in her mind, searching for more lost fragments and details so she could put all the puzzle pieces together.
While childhood sexual abuse effects anywhere from one-third to one-fourth of the population, little is known about how many of those survivors repress their memories. A handful of studies have been done with questionable results. The Williams study, one of the most prominent studies on this topic, showed 12 percent of victims repressed the traumatic memories; however, there were numerous flaws in the methodology of this study. Other studies, which also had questionable methodologies, confirm this number. Another source expressed that half of all incest victims have no recollection of the incestuous activity. Ultimately, how common repressed memories are is unknown.
Freud Introduces the Concept of Repressed Memories
In the late 1800s, pioneer psychologist Sigmund Freud introduced the concept of repressed memories to the public. Freud advocated that the brain repressed traumatic memories automatically and that it was not done intentionally by will or by choice. Freud’s concept was developed based on patients he had worked with, not on scientific studies. That is why so many scientists doubt the ability of the brain to genuinely block out a significant memory.
While the rate of memory repression is unknown, one interesting study found that there are no known incidences of repressed memories in any work of fiction or non-fiction before Freud introduced his theory. Because of this, scientists feel that once the idea was “hatched” by Freud, the public absorbed it and suddenly repressed memories were cropping up everywhere. In other words, repressed memories can’t be real because there is no record of them before Freud.
Debating the Legitimacy of Repressed Memories
Far more studies exist that show the concept of repressing memories is false. For example, one study published in the journal Psychological Science showed that women who had reported having repressed memories were 40 percent more likely to remember things that never happened (the study involved recalling groups of words).
The American Medical Association has taken the stance that repressed memories are of “uncertain authenticity.” The American Psychiatric Association states that one cannot possibly distinguish between a “memory” that actually happened and one that did not. The British Psychological Society has stated that when lead or pressured by a therapist, patients can “recover” memories that never happened. The Australian Psychological Association also believes that recovered memories cannot be authenticated. There is even a False Memory Syndrome Foundation dedicated solely to advocating that recovered memories of incest are fake.
On the other hand, Stanford reported that the human brain does have the ability to repress memories. Scientists discovered that people can block out unwanted memories to the point that eventually the memories become irretrievable. The scientists who conducted the study observed that, when repeatedly exposed to a trigger of a memory they wanted to forget, people did forget the event more so than with other memories for which no triggers were present.
These issues are becoming more and more crucial as some states are starting to enact legislation allowing the statute of limitations on crimes to be extended for victims with repressed memories. Furthermore, people are now in jail based on little more than the testimony of a witness who claimed to have repressed memories of that person committing the crime in question. Hopefully, more studies will be done on this hard-to-study issue so the clouds of suspicion on potentially genuine victims can be lifted or falsified claims can be halted.