The Reality of Repressed Memory

From: Alexandra Bilak (
Date: Tue Nov 07 1995 - 15:40:40 GMT

Summary of "The Reality Of Repressed Memory" by Elizabeth F. Loftus

Repression is an important issue in Psychology because of its
obscure, puzzling, yet fascinating nature. Many of the examples of
repression that have been studied involve early traumatic events
(such as, for example, child sexual abuse) having been pushed aside
in the mind and forgotten, usually during childhood, but having been
recovered many years later, usually after sessions of therapeutical
treatment.(This concept of repression reminds us of Freud's studies
of the beginning of the century and seems therefore to represent the
basis of Psychoanalysis.)

It is difficult to actually believe in the authenticity of
these repressed memories, and many criticisms have been formulated
against its unconvincing nature and lack of scientific evidence.

However, the number of cases of repressed memories is
increasing, and people are therefore finding it difficult to simply
ignore them. In fact, there have already been a number of legal cases
involving repressed memories, and, although a few years ago such
evidence would not have been considered relevant and would not have
been accepted as evidence, things are gradually changing. For
example, the introduction of the 'delayed discovery doctrine' in the
state of Washington enables people to sue for sexual abuse suffered
during childhood. Repressed memories are now relevant to a number of
civil law suits, and are being considered and studied by a number of

 It is still interesting to consider how authentic these
memories are. First of all, one can note that claims of repressed
memories are becoming more and more common. Studies have been made
which prove this: in almost every study, the largest number of people
reports severe memory deficits as a result of a childhood (sexual)
traumatic experience. Although it is difficult to interpret claims
about repressed memory, people (lawyers, plaintiffs...) are beginning
to realize that it is vital to study and try to understand the
theories of repression.

 But it is difficult to evaluate the truthfulness of these
claims, precisely because the quality of the memories vary from one
case to another (some people seem to remember in detail something
that happened to them when they were only a year old!).

 A recent survey showed that therapists in general believe in
the authenticity of their patients' memories, because they use
symptomatology as evidence, ie they draw conclusions from the obvious
symptoms their patients present (e.g. sexual dysfunction, low
self-esteem...), and are convinced by the sincerity of their story.
However, one cannot rely on on therapists' conclusions. It seems
indeed much more complex than this.

On the one hand, these memories have been proved to be
authentic when for example an exterior eye witness has been able to
confirm them, and on the other hand an element of doubt remains when
one thinks about the possibility of the patient having heard someone
talk about an event and having simply memorized the story and not the
event itself. The patient may as well be lying or simply fantasising.

 It is therefore dificult to determine the authenticity of
these memories, especially when one can see that there are existing
factors that can and that do influence and affect memory. Popular
writings have been recognized as highly suggestive, but the most
important source of influence is probably the therapists themselves.
It has been noticed that therapeutical treatment often raises the
issue of sexual abuse, even when the patient denies the existence of
any traumetic past. It seems indeed that most patients go and see a
therapist for symptomatic reasons (e.g. low self esteem, depression,
but also physiological disturbances) and end up recovering of past
traumatic experiences. Therapists use techniques such as the study of
dreams, hypnosis, or visualization, or simply recommend support

One could ask oneself at this point why therapists would want
to suggest such worrying things to their patients. It seems that they
believe in the necessity of these memories to be conscious and in the
unhealthiness of them being kept aside, "hidden". Also one of the
reasons might be that therapists simply wish to confirm their own
beliefs, instead of looking elsewhere for "real" evidence. But one
can't help wondering whether these memories that arise after
therapeutical treatment are real "unblocked" past memories or just
fantasise and illusions.

One must indeed consider the possibility of the creation of
"false memories", based on misinformation. It has been proved that
real traumatic memories can be changed: people having experienced a
traumatic event are somehow unable to report it correctly after a few
years: the details of their story change. Even worse, it seems
possible to "inject" a memory of something that never even happened.
These "injected memories" vary from trivial ones to violent ones: the
most famous example is that of Paul Ingram, who was arrested for
child abuse in 1988 and who confessed to rape, assaults and abuse
after having been confronted with a psychologist's suggestions.
Evidence proved that he could not have committed these crimes.

The issue of repressed memory is therefore very complex and
puzzling, and is now raising a lot of worrying questions, such as: Is
it necessarily true that people who cannot remember an abusive
chidhood are repressing it ? (Guze,1992). It is also likely that
given the increasing number of cases, society in general will find it
more difficult to believe genuine cases of repression.

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