Re: The Reality of Repressed Memory

From: Stevan Harnad (
Date: Thu Nov 09 1995 - 18:51:36 GMT

> From: "Alexandra Bilak" <>
> Date: Tue, 7 Nov 1995 15:40:40 GMT
> This concept of repression reminds us of Freud's studies
> of the beginning of the century

It should indeed remind you, since that is the main theoretical root of
the idea of recovered memory. But Freud focused on early SYMBOLIC
sexuality, rather than real sexuality: fantasies and misunderstandings
rather than overt sexual events. The theory that there can be repressed
memories come mainly from him.

> the introduction of the 'delayed discovery doctrine' in the state of
> Washington enables people to sue for sexual abuse suffered during
> childhood.

As with everything in this area, there is always a trade-off: Mistrust
memory reports and you may leave real crimes unpunished. But trust them
and you may punish innocent people.

Let us focus also on the neutral question of the reliability of
introspective report, whether about the past or even about the present.
I may report a toothache, yet there may be nothing wrong with my tooth:
I may not even have one. I may report a past event, but it may never
have happened. On the one hand, the reality of introspection (when the
subject is not lying) is not open to doubt: I SEEM to have a toothache;
that SEEMS to have happened. But how do you check if what seems really

Fortunately, with toothaches, and sometimes even with past abuse, there
ARE ways to check, using evidence other than just introspective report.

> claims of repressed memories are becoming more and more common.

That of course can mean two things (and alas, it probably means both):
that (1) people are finally coming forward and telling truths they had not
dared to tell when the world was less ready to believe them and (2) the
world's readiness to believe is now also crediting and even eliciting
incorrect memories too.

> But it is difficult to evaluate the truthfulness of these claims,
> precisely because the quality of the memories vary from one case to
> another

The only way to evaluate them is through corroboration by independent
reports form others, or by direct evidence.

> 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.

Therapists are theoretically and practically committed to a cycle of
repression, indirect cues, interpretation under the guidance of the
therapist, and finally repression lifting and recall. There is a great
element of suggestion, interpretation, and self-fulfilling prophecy in
the interaction between therapist and patient.

> these memories have been proved to be authentic when for example an
> exterior eye witness has been able to confirm them

The question is: What proportion of them is authentic, and is there any
way to know in the absence of corroborating evidence?

> the most important source of influence is probably the therapists
> themselves.... Therapists use techniques such as the study of dreams,
> hypnosis, or visualization, or simply recommend support groups.

for a discussion of how the "data" of the therapist may not
be objective data, but the effect of suggestion, on both the
patient and the therapist.

> 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
> fantasies and illusions.

In many cases, we will never know. But some of the more dramatic cases
of FALSE memories -- cases, especially those induced in the lab, in
which we know that the memories are incorrect -- suggest that
introspection may not be a reliable guide to the past.

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