Psychologist Debunks “Repressed Memory”

A short summary of the scientific case against the existence of “repressed memory” appears in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry for November 2005 (Vol. 50, pp. 817-822, and here). The author is Harvard psychology professor Richard J. McNally. He wrote on the subject at book length in Remembering Trauma(Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2003).

The article provides a succinct review of the evidence that people do not repress memories of their most horrific experiences—that is, they do not lose awareness of those experiences via psychic mechanisms such as repression or dissociation. Through its footnotes the article facilitates in-depth exploration of the relevant science.

Among the article’s points:

Memory does not operate like a video archive. When we remember something, we reconstruct the event from elements distributed throughout the brain. No memory is ever frozen and immune to change over time.

Thus it is misleading to say that a person with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—whether due to childhood sex abuse, military combat, or some other trauma—has “flashbacks.” “The notion of a timeless, inflexible, photographic replay flies in the face of what we know about the dynamics of the brain,” Prof. McNally says.

For some persons, a false memory of horrific trauma can produce a stronger emotional response than others have to true memories of severe trauma. Prof. McNally’s research group recruited individuals who said they had been abducted and traumatized by space aliens. The researchers had them listen to audiotaped scripts of their abduction trauma. Their responses were powerful, according to Prof. McNally:

The typical abductee was not suffering from psychosis, was characterized by a rich imagination, had a history of isolated sleep paralysis accompanied by hypnopompic (“upon awakening”) hallucinations of extraterrestrial intruders in the bedroom, and had undergone hypnotic memory recovery sessions in which detailed accounts of being medically and sexually probed on spaceships emerged. Exposure to their audiotaped “false memories” of trauma provoked marked subjective distress and psychophysiologic reactivity (for example, heart rate, skin conductance, and facial electromyographic activity). Strikingly, the degree of reactivity was greater than that exhibited by Vietnam veterans diagnosed with PTSD when they listened to audiotaped scripts of their war trauma.

Emotion is thus no proof of veracity.

One study cited by supporters of repressed memory theory concerns 38 children studied after watching lightning strike and kill a playmate. Two of the children had no memory of the event. Prof. McNally says this was because those two were also struck by the lightning, producing “organic amnesia.” Their loss of memory had a physical cause, not a psychic one.

Prof. McNally also distinguishes “not thinking about something for a long time” from having it blocked from consciousness by a psychic mechanism. He cites cases of people who think they forgot their abuse but who actually forgot remembering it:

Some individuals who believed they had not thought about their abuse for many years did, in fact, recall it, but then forgot that they had remembered it. These individuals were surprised when others told them that they previously discussed their abuse during the period when they thought the memories had never come to mind.

Also, when young children are molested, their lack of sexual awareness may prevent their feeling much distress. Years later, after puberty, something may bring the event back to mind—maybe the perpetrator comes back into the victim’s life—and the victim’s sexual maturity gives the memory a strong emotional content for the first time.

Prof. McNally calls “recovered memory therapy,” in which therapists work to uncover repressed memories, “arguably the most serious catastrophe to strike the mental health field since the lobotomy era.”