There Is No Reliable Evidence For Repressed Memories

By Gregory Myers on Tuesday, October 28, 2014
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“Not the power to remember, but its very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition for our existence.” —Sholem Asch, The Nazarene

In A Nutshell

According to some practitioners, if you use the right methods, you can find memories that someone repressed—sometimes of past abuse or even of alien abductions. However, despite the claims of those who try to recover repressed memories, there is no solid evidence for a single provable case. It’s not recognized officially by mental health researchers, and many researchers feel that therapists are unwittingly helping people create false memories, rather than finding repressed ones.

The Whole Bushel

Many people are convinced that repressed memories are real. It’s become a common trope in popular culture, and some practicing therapists still think that it is a good way to help a patient recover. The problem is that these therapists are likely not only performing junk science, but doing more harm than good. The issue of repressed memories is actually an incredibly contentious one in psychological circles. On the one hand, you have people who are convinced that the “repressed” memories they are getting from patients are real. This is despite no real evidence other than a gut hunch that these people couldn’t possibly be inventing something as wild as an alien abduction or sexual abuse experience and that their experiences must be real. Many of these therapists feel a certain indignation at researchers who attempt to thoroughly debunk repressed memories, angry that we are telling people what they do or don’t actually remember.

However, the problem is that memory is an incredibly fickle thing, which the skeptical researchers have proven. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has attended scores of trials in an attempt to act as an expert and help those who are being convicted only on the basis of either repressed memories or shaky eyewitness testimony. She realized that due to the capacity for our brains to falsify and alter memories, many people were likely being wrongly convicted. She wanted to put a stop to the false repressed memories that put people in jail by proving that repressed memories are not real or at least by shedding serious doubt on their validity in a court of law. She performed multiple experiments and found that it was incredibly easy to implant false memories in people. She has also cautioned that police can inadvertently cause people to point out the wrong perpetrator by altering their memories simply by talking about their theories regarding the case.

However, other psychologists wanted to do more than just prove how unreliable memory is and how little stock we should put in repressed memories when it comes to eyewitness testimony—they wanted to definitively prove the link between false and repressed memories. Using control groups, they found that those who claimed to have repressed memories were much more likely to be easily suggestible when it came to having false memories implanted in them. But even more fascinating was the discovery that many of those who claimed repressed memories tested positive for stress tests associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. In other words, even though the repressed memories—usually of alien abductions in these experiments—were not actually real, the people in question had convinced themselves so strongly of their truth that they had actual trauma symptoms associated with it.

To make matters worse for the repressed memory theorists, their entire claims basically hinge on the idea that humans can be so traumatized that they simply block a memory out and that it can be brought back years later. However, psychological research has shown that humans are very attached to their memories, because it really makes up so much of who we are, even if the memories are extremely negative. Elizabeth Loftus tried a survey to see if people would hypothetically want to take a memory-repressing drug after a traumatic event. Surprisingly, most people did not want to take the drug; they wanted their memories intact and unrepressed or destroyed, even if they were unpleasant.

Show Me The Proof

Discover: Are Recovered Memories Real?
Psychology Today: Researchers and Practitioners Disagree on Repressed Memory
CNN: Trust your memory? Maybe you shouldn’t

  • 1DireWolf

    I don’t remember if I have repressed memories or not. Hell, these days most of my memories are repressed and/or depressed.

  • Clyde Barrow

    Trust me, a good night of drinking can induce repressed memory recollection.

  • oouchan

    I’ve always been skeptical of this practice. Was it real or imagined? Mostly imagined is what I’m thinking. This in no way should be used to discount such memories that show up out of the blue however…such as bad things that happen to us as kids. I’m just speaking of the “practice” of getting those memories.

    Interesting.

  • Hillyard

    I’ve always thought that this was a bunch of BS. This was almost a fad amongst shrinks for a while. Hopefully Ms Loftus was able to get that thrown out of court cases and keep innocent people out of jail.

  • Lji

    So that means the Betty and Barney did not have a probe experience. All might have been made up in their mind.

  • Nicky

    I don’t know about the whole “recovering repressed memories with a therapist” deal but! – I did, as a child,experience something kind of traumatic for me and it was something I somehow removed from my mind until it had popped right back into my memory out of nowhere from a simple conversation I was having with my mother. It was 6 or 7 years beforehand and I had completely forgotten about it, which was very unusual for me because I’m the one in my family to always remember things from the past. It just rushed right back in and I remembered what happened like it was the night before. It was an odd experience-maybe I guess the point I’m making is….I believe, but maybe it’s not something that can actively and willingly be recovered. It just is..Hope that makes sense.

  • Lydia C

    There is an incredibly high degree of evidence for repressed memories.

    Read “The Journal of Traumatic Stress” or “Consciousness and Cognition” or “Neuroscience” or “European Journal of Psychotraumatology” or “Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience”, to name only a few. There are thousands of articles that not only talk about repressed memories, but also discuss how precisely the brain represses traumatic events – particularly in childhood.

    And you quote Loftus as your source? That woman’s research is over 20 years old, and she had zero experience studying PTSD and peri-traumatic dissociation. She did great work for memory – but had no experience with traumatic memory, or peri-traumatic dissociation, or its resultant PTSD. I can’t believe you even wrote an article where she is your principle source! In 2014? Wow, you are so 20 years ago, and your existence demonstrates why more research is necessary in the field of trauma.

    And clearly you are not even involved in the field of psychology. Not only because Loftus – who worked with memory, not trauma, over 20 years ago – is your source, but because you clearly have not even read some basic journals on dissociation (you are aware that it is traumatic dissociation – an incredibly common phenomena, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in hundreds of studies – is what leads to repression, right? Please tell me you at least understand the basics of that which you are discussing.)