Should we uncover the past? Or do some things simply belong in the past? Should we forget or should we choose to remember the unthinkable? For my research essay, I will be discussing the topic of repressed memories. Including in my essay what repressed memories are, why they happen, if and how they can be retrieved and their validity. This is a very controversial issue and I will be addressing both sides of the argument.

From my own knowledge, I know that repressed memories are memories of events that exist within a person’s mind but cannot be recalled. They are memories that have been forgotten but are still stored within the brain. They are considered by some to be a type of psychological defense mechanism enacted by the brain to cope with forms of trauma. Psychological trauma can occur from experiencing abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, mental), warfare, natural disasters, and other forms of violent or threatening incidents. I have heard of methods used in psychotherapy to retrieve repressed memories from a client who suspects they were subjected to childhood abuse or wishes to further understand trauma they are aware happened. I have also heard of repressed memories leading to legal action after being retrieved and negatively impacting people’s lives. Finally, I know that many people do not believe repressed memories are real. Furthermore, many people consider trying to retrieve them as pseudoscience and potentially very harmful to the client and those who are in the repressed memories.

I chose this topic because I am currently a psychology major and have a certificate in counseling. I have previously done academic research on psychological trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. I personally believe repressed memories are a true phenomenon. However, I want to know the validity of retrieving them. What exact methods are used? When repressed memories have been retrieved, has it led to significant psychological healing or caused more harm?

I began my research online at Chaffey College’s website. I accessed the article and database list through the school’s library. Using Academic Search Complete I searched for “repressed memories.” I filtered my search to only include academic journals and the language English. After noticing a high percentage of articles from the 1990s, I narrowed the search to articles published within this this century, 2000-2017. From this point I searched for “recovered memories” with the same filter criteria and found significantly more results. I selected articles that, from their titles, appeared to cover repressed memories and their recovery in a general way versus more specific topics such as, repressed memories and the law, in Christianity and in survivors of Armenian Genocide. Finally, I reviewed each article’s abstract and read its contents for research information.

I encountered a few frustrations during my research. First, the majority of articles on this topic were published in the 1990s which would not be considered very current. Older studies often are not seen as credible as other more recent resources. Secondly, numerous studies focused on proving whether recovered memories were authentic but left much to be desired in the subject of how they are recovered and if recovering them is beneficial or harmful. Lastly, several articles were published by journals focusing on hypnotism. Although they were still considered scholarly journals, I could easily see how their articles could be looked at with less credibility. The most difficult part of my research was trying to understand the results portions of studies since they use science terminology and data figures that I am not very familiar with. Abstracts and discussions in studies present information in a more digestible manner. My favorite part of this research process was seeing that recent studies on this topic do exist and provide differing viewpoints. The issue of repressed memories seems to have peaked general interest in the 1990s and also seems to have a general doubtful reputation. Therefore, I am glad to see professionals continue to investigate repressed and recovered memories. I used the research methods mentioned previously because it is how I was taught by my professors to do the most accurate research.

Through my research, I learned the subject of repressed and recovered memories is a very divided topic among mental health professionals. According to a study published in Professional Psychology: Research & Practice, “the use of recovered-memory therapy (RMT) to help retrieve early memories of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) has been criticized extensively on the grounds that these suggestive techniques carry risks for false-memory reports” (Myers, Bryan, et al. 270). RMT involves hypnosis, guided imagery and relaxation techniques with a licensed psychotherapist. While proponents of RMT claim it “can lead to a reduction in symptomatology as they begin to understand these memories with the help of the therapist… They further contend that there is ample documentation to support the notion that delayed recall of traumatic memories can emerge after a period of amnesia (Harvey & Herman, 1994). In addition, they regard the recovery of these memories as necessary to the client’s recovery (Gorman, 2008), and this is a position endorsed by a great number of psychotherapists” (271). Those supporting RMT assert that studies proving false memory retrieval are inaccurate as they are conducted primarily in laboratory settings and therefore cannot mimic results brought about in psychotherapy. However, “critics of RMT contend that evidence for the efficacy of these techniques is not empirically supported” (271) Cited reports in the study actually indicate psychological deterioration due to RMT including increased suicidality, self-mutilation and increase in both the frequency and severity of symptoms being treated.

According to “The Reality of Recovered Memories” published in Psychological Science, memories that are naturally remembered in an out of therapy setting are much more likely to be true. The authors explain, “Seemingly forgotten memories whose recall was associated with a sense of surprise were much more frequently corroborated than discontinuous memories whose existence was anticipated. This latter finding suggests that whereas deliberately recovered memories are apt to be suspect, spontaneously discovered memories (Schooler, 2001) are more likely to be true” (Geraerts et al. 567). This study indicates that blocking out traumatic memories is possible but those retrieved through intentional means have a higher degree of falsehood through suggestion.

In addition, I discovered there is a third category to the realm of recovered memories, memory suppression instead of repression. While reading, “Linking Thought Suppression and Recovered Memories” I learned some individuals reporting recovered memories have shown to be “more successful at suppressing anxious autobiographical thoughts, both in the short and the long run”. The authors explain the occurrence as follows, “because of their superior ability to suppress unwanted thoughts, they may manage not to think about the abuse for several years. If many years later they encounter suitable retrieval cues, vivid intrusions about the abuse may then be experienced as a recovered memory” and  provide the main difference between having suppressed memories and repressed memories, “actively suppressing traumatic events is not equivalent to amnesia for the event” (Geraerts, Elke, et al. 26).

As a result of my research, I have added extensively to my knowledge of memory repression and recovery. It appears that recovered memories are in fact a reality. Although the means by which they are retrieved may lead to a very questionable veracity. Very importantly, I have found evidence suggesting recalling and reliving such memories may cause significant harm to an individual therefore having heavier immediate negative consequences than positive outcomes. I still have many questions. What do people who have gone through recovered memory therapy have to say first hand about their experiences? Do they personally think it was helpful? Although there is evidence showing negative outcomes as a result of RMT, does going through that difficult psychological phase lead to overall better mental health after restabilization? Or are the negative effects of RMT too severe to warrant that phase and too severe to guarantee mental restabilization? Unfortunately, my main question still goes unanswered: are repressed memories better off forgotten?

 

Annotated Bibliography

Geraerts, Elke, et al. “Linking Thought Suppression and Recovered Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse.” Memory, vol. 16, no. 1, Jan. 2008, pp. 22-28. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/09658210701390628.

This resource explores the differences between memory repression and suppression and contrasts memories recovered spontaneously versus memories recovered through psychotherapy. It relies on analyzing test subjects behaviors and characteristics surrounding autobiographical information.

 

—. “The Reality of Recovered Memories: Corroborating Continuous and Discontinuous Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse.” Psychological Science (0956-7976), vol. 18, no. 7, July 2007, pp. 564-568. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01940.x.

This resource generally covers the debate of repressed memories. It also compares and contrasts memories recovered spontaneously versus memories recovered through psychotherapy. It relies on finding corroborating evidence of participants’ child sexual abuse memories (CSA).

 

Myers, Bryan, et al. “Beliefs about Therapist Suggestiveness and Memory Veracity in Recovered-Memory Therapy: An Analogue Study.” Professional Psychology: Research & Practice, vol. 46, no. 4, Aug. 2015, pp. 270-276. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1037/pro0000021.

This resource primarily analyzes recovered memory therapy (RMT). It covers its methods, its validity and its perception by the general public.