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