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Repressed memory

The term Repressed memory is used to describe a significant memory, usually of a traumatic nature (such as for example, childhood sexual abuse) that has become unavailable for recall due to some conscious or unconscious mechanism, but not involving brain injury or an organic condition such as Alzheimer's. The term is somewhat of a misnomer because it is often used to describe memories that have been dissociated from awareness as well as those pushed from awareness (i.e., repression) entirely without dissociation. Although there has been much debate on the topic of repressed memories in the media and public arena, studies consistently demonstrate that amnesia occurs in survivors of trauma.[1][2][3][4][5][6] Repressed memories may sometimes be recovered years or decades after the event, most often spontaneously, triggered by a particular smell, taste, or other identifier related to the lost memory; or rarely, via suggestion during psychotherapy.[7]



The theory of dissociative amnesia makes the assumption that memory repression is possible. Linda Williams conducted a study to determine whether women who had been sexually assaulted as children could all remember the abuse. The women had been taken to hospital as children as reported victims of sexual abuse. Between 15 and 18 years later, the women were interviewed and 38% did not report that particular incident. Williams noted that many of these women did disclose other very personal events and other incidents of sexual assaults.[8] Some peer reviewed and clinical studies (including ones cited by the Leadership Council) continue to support the existence of recovered memory. [9][10] One source lists over one hundred corroborated cases of recovered memory in legal, clinical and scientific case studies. [11]

The Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence asserts that Brown, Scheflin and Hammond in their book, "Memory, Trauma Treatment, and the Law" (New York: Norton, 1998) reviewed 43 studies and concluded that every study that examined the question of dissociative amnesia in traumatized populations demonstrated that a substantial minority partially or completely forgot the traumatic event experienced, and later recovered memories of the event. [12] One research project has documented thirty-five cases of recovered memories of traumatic childhood events which have been corroborated “by clear and convincing evidence.” [13]

Alan Scheflin, in a Psychiatric Times article states that science is limited on the issue of repressed memory. He concluded that on the basis of three relevant studies that repressed memories are "no more and no less accurate than continuous memories" and recommended that therapists and courts should consider these repressed memories the same as they consider regular memories. [14]

The Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence asserts: "Research has shown that traumatized individuals respond by using a variety of psychological mechanisms. One of the most common means of dealing with the pain is to try and push it out of awareness. Some label the phenomenon of the process whereby the mind avoids conscious acknowledgment of traumatic experiences as dissociative amnesia...there is near-universal scientific acceptance of the fact that the mind is capable of avoiding conscious recall of traumatic experiences." [15]

Harvard University's Richard McNally wrote that he considers the notion of repressed memory to be a "pernicious bit of psychiatric folklore" [16]. A recent Amicus Brief to the California Supreme Court drafted by R. Christopher Barden and signed by nearly 100 international experts in the field of human memory emphasized there is no credible scientific support for the notions of repressed and recovered memories. [17]

Researchers have stated that repression can operate on a social level as well. [18]

Body memory

Main article: Body memory

Body memory is supposed to be a form of repressed memory. Body memory is a claim that the body itself (rather than the brain) remembers something - typically abuse. This is characterized by a pain in a body part where there appears to be no present-day physical reason for the pain, thus this is seen as evidence of the body remembering a past pain, similar to phantom limb syndrome.[citation needed]

Some psychologists and social workers use the term body memory to refer to physical symptoms that accompany trauma[citation needed]. Studies have shown that survivors of trauma, specifically with PTSD, have a predisposition to illness and injuries because stress weakens the immune system [19], but this stress-related vulnerability to illness is a completely different idea than memories stored and repressed within non-brain tissue.

Legal issues

The fact that the concept of repressed memory appears in the DSM-IV shows that this concept is 'relevant in the specific scientific community', according to a 1993 legal precedent often simply referred to as Daubert. This meant that during the 1990s, in some jurisdictions, this satisfied court rules regarding the admissibility of scientific testimony as court evidence. It should be noted however that since that time, the law has subsequently evolved, and has to some extent been shaped, by the controversy over recovered memories. The way it has responded varies according to the legal system of the state or country concerned. So in recent years, sometimes recovered memories may or may not be presented as evidence, depending on the court. [20]. In some jurisdictions, specific guidelines have been put in place. For example, a New Hampshire state law, known as the Hungerford Law, places strict limitations on the way repressed and recovered memories are admitted in court; in some cases preventing it altogether[21].

Some criminal cases have been based on a witness' testimony of recovered repressed memories, often of alleged childhood sexual abuse. In some jurisdictions, the statute of limitations for child abuse cases has been extended to accommodate the phenomena of repressed memories as well as other factors. The repressed memory concept came into wider public awareness in the 1980s and 1990s; followed by a reduction of public attention after a series of scandals, lawsuits, and license revocations.[22]

In a 1996 ruling, the US District Court found that "the reliability of the phenomenon of repressed memory has been established, and therefore, will permit the plaintiff to introduce evidence which relates to the plaintiff's recovered memories". Judge Harrington cited DSM-IV, 1994, writing that "American Psychiatric Association, also recognizes the concept of repressed memories", and in the concluding paragraph of the decision wrote: "It is important to stress that, in considering the admissibility of repressed memory evidence, it is not the role of the Court to rule on the credibility of this individual plaintiff's memories, but rather on the validity of the theory itself. For the foregoing reasons, the Court hereby denies the Defendant's Motion in Limine to Exclude Repressed Memory Evidence."[23]

Recovered memory therapy

Main article: Recovered memory therapy

Recovered memory therapy (RMT) is a term coined by affiliates of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) in the early 1990s,[24][25][26] to refer what they described as a range of psychotherapy methods based on recalling memories of abuse that had previously been forgotten by the patient.[27] The term is not listed in DSM-IV or used by any mainstream formal psychotherapy modality.[24]

Kenneth Pope, during an award address for the American Psychological Association's Award for Distinguished Contributions to Public Service, stated that the false memory movement may have affected treatment and diagnosis and access to services for some clients.[28]

Brown, Scheflin and Hammond in their book argue that "Occasional suggestions about abuse are not generally effective." They assert that the idea that suggesting false memories in therapy can create false memories has not been tested. [29] Charles Whitfield, MD, in his 1995 book Memory and Abuse, states that all critics of studies of the studies showing support for the validity of delayed memories, that he had found, are members of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation advisory board.[30].

A 1998 working group and literature review paper in the British Journal of Psychiatry reported it found "vast literature but little acceptable research" on this controversy.[31] The report stated that the use of "extraordinary means" to recover memories resulted in a high probability of memories of incidents that had not occurred, but that the question of memories that might be false or recovered "should not be allowed to confuse the recognition and treatment of sexually abused children". [31]

Even when patients who have had therapy to recover 'memories' come to decide that their memories are in fact false (and so retract their claims), they can still suffer a kind of post traumatic stress. This is due to what some therapists call "brain stain". [32]


The concept was originated by Sigmund Freud in his 1896 essay Zur Ätiologie der Hysterie ("On the etiology of hysteria"), however Freud himself abandoned his theory between 1897-1905, and during 1920-1923 replaced it with his impulse-based concept of Id, Super-ego, and Ego. Friedrich Nietzsche was the first to suggest an active, conscious thought management method in the second essay of his On the Genealogy of Morals as a necessary fundament of efficiency, responsibility, and maturity.

Repressed memories in popular entertainment

Repressed memories were a frequent topic among talk-show hosts in the 1990s and have frequently been portrayed in popular entertainment, especially as a plot device.

  • The film Tommy: the title character is coerced into forgetting that he has witnessed the killing of his father.
  • The film Nurse Betty: Betty also witnesses a murder and as a result of the trauma forgets her entire reality for a time, deluded into being a character in her favourite soap opera.
  • The film The Butterfly Effect: Evan has blackouts throughout his childhood when in traumatic situations. As a college student, he attempts to recover these memories and finds that he can change the past.
  • The film Spellbound: a horrible childhood memory has been suppressed and causes nightmares for years afterwards.
  • The video game Final Fantasy VII: the protagonist Cloud Strife carries false memories of his service in SOLDIER, the real memories suppressed after his Mako treatment.
  • The anime/manga Elfen Lied: one of the main characters, Kouta, suppressed the majority of his childhood after seeing his little sister being murdered by the protagonist Lucy.
  • The anime/manga Fruits Basket: the supporting character, Hatori Sohma had to suppress the memories of his love, Kana, after Akito Sohma blinded Hatori's left eye by throwing a vase at him and blamed Hatori's injury on Kana. The guilt from the accident drove her into madness and Hatori was forced to suppress her memories so that she could once again smile. Hatori has also had to suppress the memories of Yuki Sohma's friends, and Momiji Sohma's mother.
  • The anime/manga His and Her Circumstances: When Arima visits his girlfriend, Yukino's house for the first time he realizes he doesn't have a deep bond with his adoptive parents and is confronted with repressed memories of abuse and abandonment from his real parents.
  • The novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Charlie is confronted with repressed memories of being sexually abused by his aunt in the end of the novel after being upset and confused by sexual contact with his crush/friend, Sam.
  • The protagonist of the video game Silent Hill 2, James Sunderland, repressed his memory of murdering his wife prior to the game's events.
  • In the movie Total Recall, set in the year 2084, a man travels to Mars for a virtual vacation that implants memories of the trip in his mind, to recall those memories in exact detail. During his trip he recalls the truth about himself.
  • In the television series Dexter, main character Dexter Morgan has repressed memories of his mothers brutal murder.


  1. ^ Widom, Cathy Spatz; Shepard, Robin L. (December 1996). "Accuracy of adult recollections of childhood victimization : Part 1. Childhood physical abuse". Psychological Assessment 8 (4): 412-21. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. ISSN 1040-3590. EJ542113. Retrieved on 2007-12-18.
  2. ^ Widom, Cathy Spatz; Morris, Suzanne (March 1997). "Accuracy of Adult Recollections of Childhood Victimization: Part 2. Childhood Sexual Abuse.". Psychological Assessment 9 (1): 34-46. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. ISSN 1040-3590. EJ545434. Retrieved on 2007-12-18.
  3. ^ Sheflin, Alan W; Brown, Daniel (1996). "Repressed Memory or Dissociative Amnesia: What the Science Says.". Journal of Psychiatry & Law 24 (Summer): 143-88. ISSN 0093-1853. Retrieved on 2007-12-18. “38% of subjects failed to recall sexual abuse 17 years after childhood sexual assault that led them to the emergency room.”
  4. ^ Hopper, Jim. Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse Scientific Research & Scholarly Resources. Retrieved on 2007-12-15.
  5. ^ Herman, Judith Lewis (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror. Basic Books, p119-122. ISBN 0465087302. 
  6. ^ Julia M. Whealin, Ph.D. and Laurie Slone, Ph.D.. Complex PTSD. National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. United States Department of Veteran Affairs.
  7. ^ Albach, Francine; Peter Paul Moormann, Bob Bermond (Dec-1996). "Memory recovery of childhood sexual abuse". Dissociation Vol. 9, No. 4, p. 261-273. ISSN 0896-2863. Retrieved on 2008-01-03.
  8. ^ Linda Williams, 1994, Recall of Childhood Trauma: A Prospective Study of Women’s Memories of Child Sexual Abuse, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Pschology Vol 62, No 6, 1167-1176)
  9. ^ Recovered Memory Project
  10. ^ Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence: Research on the Effect of Trauma on Memory
  11. ^ Recovered Memory Project Archive
  12. ^ Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence: Summary of Research Examining the Prevalence of Full or Partial Dissociative Amnesia for Traumatic Events
  13. ^ Cheit, Ross E. (1998). "Consider This, Skeptics of Recovered Memory". ETHICS & BEHAVIOR 8 (2): 141 - 160. Retrieved on 2007-12-25. “Some self-proclaimed skeptics of recovered memory claim that traumatic childhood events simply cannot be forgotten at the time only to be remembered later in life....The research project described in this article identifies and documents the growing number of cases that have been ignored or distorted by such skeptics. To date, this project has documented 35 cases in which recovered memories of traumatic childhood events were corroborated by clear and convincing evidence.”
  14. ^ "Ground Lost: The False Memory/Recovered Memory Therapy Debate," by Alan Scheflin, Psychiatric Times 11/99, Vol. XVI Issue 11
  15. ^ Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence: Research on the Effect of Trauma on Memory
  16. ^ McNally RJ. The science and folklore of traumatic amnesia. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 11:29-33, 2004
  17. ^ Barden, R. C. Amicus Brief in Taus v. Loftus, Superme Court of California, Feb. 21, 2006.
  18. ^ Freyd, Jennifer J. (2007). "Archiving Dissociation as a Precaution Against Dissociating Dissociation". Journal of Trauma & Dissociation 8 (3). Retrieved on 2007-12-29. “Judith Herman (1992) famously observed, “The knowledge of horrible events periodically intrudes into public awareness but is rarely retained for long. Denial, repression, and dissociation operate on a social as well as an individual level””
  19. ^ Stress Weakens the Immune System - American Psychological Association - APA Online
  20. ^ "Attacking the Invisible: Tools for preventing the admission of 'recovered memory' evidence at trial" by Paige A. Nichols
  21. ^ Repressed memories rejected By Liz Chretien, April, 2005
  22. ^ Robbins Susan P.,The Social and Cultural Context of Satanic Ritual Abuse Allegations, published in Institute for Psychological Therapies magazine, vol 10 1998.[1]
  23. ^ 923 Federal Supplement 286 (D. Mass. 1996); CIVIL ACTION NO.: 92-12139-EFH MEMORANDUM AND ORDER; May 8, 1996
  24. ^ a b Whitfield, Charles L.; Joyanna L. Silberg, Paul Jay Fink (2001). Misinformation Concerning Child Sexual Abuse and Adult Survivors. Haworth Press, p56. ISBN 0789019019. 
  25. ^ Salter, Stephanie. "Feminist Treason and Intellectual Fascism" (reprint), San Francisco Examiner, 1993-04-07. Retrieved on 2007-12-15. 
  26. ^ Underwager, Ralph; Hollida Wakefield (1994). Return of the Furies: An Investigation into Recovered Memory Therapy. Open Court Pub Co, 360. ISBN 978-0812692716. 
  27. ^ Lief, Harold I (November 1999). "Patients Versus Therapists: Legal Actions Over Recovered Memory Therapy". Psychiatric Times XVI (11).
  28. ^ Pope, Kenneth S. (1996). "Memory, Abuse, & Science: Questioning Claims about the False Memory Syndrome Epidemic" (reprint). American Psychologist 51 (9): 957-974. Retrieved on 2007-12-28.
  29. ^ Brown, Scheflin and Hammond (1998). Memory, Trauma Treatment, And the Law (W. W. Norton) ISBN 0-393-70254-5
  30. ^ Whitfield M.D., Charles L. (1995). Memory and Abuse - Remembering and Healing the Effects of Trauma. Health Communications, Inc, p71. ISBN 1-55874-320-0. 
  31. ^ a b Brandon S, Boakes J, Glaser D, Green R. ( 1998 Apr;172) Recovered Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Implications for Clinical Practice, Working Party report of the British Royal College of Psychiatrists, British Journal of Psychiatry, pgs. 296-307 (abstract on pubmed)
  32. ^ Kelly Lambert and Scott O. Lilienfeld, [2], 'Scientific American Mind', Oct 2007.

See also

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Repressed_memory". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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