More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
A Study of Memory Looks at Fact and Fiction
February 3, 2007

The beautiful and deeply religious Madame de Tourvel is so distraught after cheating on her husband in the 1782 novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, that she blacks out the betrayal altogether, arriving at a convent with no idea of what had brought her there. Soon the horror of the infidelity rushes back, in all its incriminating force.

More than two centuries later, she has become part of a longstanding debate about whether the brain can block access to painful memories, like betrayals and childhood sexual abuse, and suddenly release them later on.

In a paper posted online in the current issue of the journal Psychological Medicine, a team of psychiatrists and literary scholars reports that it could not find a single account of repressed memory, fictional or not, before the year 1800.

The researchers offered a $1,000 reward last March to anyone who could document such a case in a healthy, lucid person. They posted the challenge in newspapers and on 30 Web sites where the topic might be discussed. None of the responses were convincing, the authors wrote, suggesting that repressed memory is a ?culture-bound syndrome? and not a natural process of human memory.

Madame de Tourvel ?is the closest we got to a winner,? said Dr. Harrison Pope, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard and the lead author of the paper. But her amnesia, he said, was too brief to qualify.

The researchers hypothesized that if a natural ability to repress memories were hard-wired into the human brain, then such a thing would surely have occurred in medical or fictional literature before the 19th century, when novelists began using it as a plot device.

?This is such a graphic phenomenon that you would expect to find many allusions to it, and not merely oblique ones,? Dr. Pope said.

The finding, while adding a literary dimension to a mostly scientific debate, may only inflame both sides. Dr. Pope and a co-author, Dr. James I. Hudson of Harvard, have long been skeptical of repressed memory, while others argue that it is real, at least in some cases.

?It looks to me like they had an answer in mind before they did the study and found what they were looking for,? said Dr. David Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Spiegel has submitted a rebuttal to the journal, citing links between trauma and forgetfulness in Greek literature.

The so-called memory wars peaked in the 1980s, when some patients in therapy described long-lost scenes of abuse, often at the hands of their parents. Books and news articles dramatized the experience, and some charges turned into high- profile court cases. The debate died down in the 1990s, after experts raised questions about many claims, but it has revived in recent years, largely because of the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church.

The authors of the new paper report that they received ?more than 100? responses to their challenge. Euripides? Heracles, in a fit of madness, murders his wife and children, but forgets the incident after suffering an injury. In Shakespeare, King Lear at first does not recognize his daughter Cordelia when he awakens disoriented in the French camp. In some versions of the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, the immortal monkey Hanuman forgets that he possesses supernatural powers.

But none of these adventures fit the authors? strict criteria: a healthy person blacks out a specific traumatic event, only to retrieve it a year or more later. Madame de Tourvel?s experience ? submitted by Richard J. McNally, a Harvard psychologist and a repressed-memory skeptic ? may offer ?the first glimmering of a concept? that arose during the Romantic era in the 1800s, later took hold in the writings of Freud and eventually provided a staple in Hollywood movies, Dr. Pope said.

David Bromwich, a professor of English at Yale and author of Disowned by Memory: Wordsworth?s Poetry in the 1790s (University of Chicago Press), disavowed any special expertise on the memory debate. But he said the Romantic period ?was full of poets and others saying that the mind works by a combination of invention and re-creation of material from half-forgotten memories.?

The scientific dispute is over what constitutes normal forgetting. Studies show that healthy people usually remember frightening or dangerous incidents more vividly than other experiences: the brain preserves these impressions because they are important for survival. But those who believe in the brain?s ability actively to repress say this system may break down if the memory is too upsetting.

?Dr. Pope is famous for saying trauma is memorable, but when he is presented with cases of forgetting trauma ? as in the 101 cases in my Web site ? his answer is that they are normal forgetting,? Ross E. Cheit, a political scientist at Brown University who runs the site, said in an e-mail message.

Dr. McNally replied that even if a once vivid memory has not surfaced in years, that does not mean it has been actively repressed.

For example, he said, a child might initially be more confused than upset upon receiving sexual advances from a relative. The brain stores the memory, stuffed into a neural drawer with a thousand other mysteries of childhood, until years later, when the repulsiveness of the act suddenly hits the person, now an adult.

?It?s not repression; it?s just that the person hasn?t thought about it in many years, hasn?t appreciated how reprehensible it was,? Dr. McNally said. The notion of repressed memory, he went on, is a ?culturally provided narrative to account for the fact that the memory is now retrospectively reappraised as traumatic.?

The researchers said they were still fielding suggestions at
This is very interesting. What I question is the blocking of total memory of childhood where neither my brothers nor I have any memories to speak of before the age of 12 except for a few places. All 3 of us were victims of severe abuse, which has been corraborated by several family members. When we do begin to experience flashbacks or some memory recall, we begin to dissociate. So does this research contradict this as possible?

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
This debate has been ongoing for a long time and frankly I see this as reviving the debate without any real new insights.

In a paper posted online in the current issue of the journal Psychological Medicine, a team of psychiatrists and literary scholars reports that it could not find a single account of repressed memory, fictional or not, before the year 1800.

My reaction to this is, so what? I daresay that it would be difficult to find any accounts of certain physical diseases before 1800 as well - would the authors argue that because no one mentioned fibromyalgia or environmental allergies before 1800 that those conditions do not exist?

The concept of repressed memory received no real attention or credibility before Freud in the early part of the 20th century. That's why no one talked about it. In the 1600s and 1700s, mental illness was generally characterized as witchcraft or demonic possession. Why would anyone expect people to be talking about repressed memory in that context?

Let's not forget that there was a time when talking about the earth as a sphere (versus the flat earth belief) orbiting around a star simply didn't happen.

Let's not forget as well that it is and always has been more difficult to get published if your contentions or theories go against the tide of "accepted wisdom". The fact that no one talked about repressed memory in the 1700s and earlier doesn't mean anything except that no one had yet considered it to be important. If you think about it, even the concept of normal memory was pretty rudimentary prior to 1800.

Personally, I don't think there is any rational doubt today that repressed memories exist. The issue to me is whether false memories also exist; I am sure they do and that is the real challenge for clinicians and for the legal system.
can one have repressed memories and have absolutely no indication of this? or is there always something that's off? seeps out somehow?
I would like to share a personal story that may be relevant in this discussion. Several years ago before my grandmother passed away (she actually committed suicide), she began to share with the woman who was taking care of her a litany of all the abuses and torture that she (and others with her) perpetrated on her grandchildren, including sexual abuse and other horrific things. The woman, whom I will call R, spoke with me after my grandmother died, to say among other things that she had never in her life heard of the kinds of things that were done to us, and that she herself was going to seek therapy to try to deal with what she had been told (unfortunately she herself died from a heart attack two weeks later). In any case, I told her at the time of the limited memories (albeit difficult memories) that my brothers and sisters and I had of our childhoods and asked her to confirm some of them, which she did, and when I asked her to give me more details, she stated that "it is absolutely best that you NOT remember what you don't and that God is protecting you from knowing the kind of torture you endured."

I think that this speaks to two things: one is that I believe that the mind allows people/children (thankfully) to endure what it can humanly endure and 2) that sometimes memories from early childhood when recalled as adults make no sense because what was happening to us as children made no sense - we were not thinking as adults as children and trying to overlay an adult sensibility and knowledge base on an early childhood experience just distorts things. The most I and my siblings have been able to do is to say that we know what happened to us was bad, it makes us still feel bad, and we will likely never know the real "truth" of the experience. In short, the bad feelings are bad enough.

Sorry for this really long post but I didn't know how to say it any shorter. Thank you for your insights though as well!

Nigel H

Wow what an interesting topic!

There is evidence to suggest that the mind does repress memories that are painful for us to remember. In hypnotherapy/NLP we are taught that this is one purpose of the unconcsious mind, since it is there to protect us and enable us to function. The unconscious will then bring up certain memories for resolution when it feels we have the resources to deal with them.

Often we will consciously over-ride that and push them back down - but up they pop again some time later.

In his book 'Time Line Therapy & the Basis of Personality', Tad James discusses people actively using Time Line Therapy to see the dark spots in their time-line where the memory has been blocked and needing to 'turn down' the energy on certain other memories to allow the blacked out memory to emerge. Fortunately, he has given us the tools to allow any such memory to be dealt with and have the negative emotions released and any limiting decisions/beliefs, that such a 'significant emotional event' has created, dealt with also.

I found that having dealt with past events I have had various parts of my child-hood resurface, since they no longer hold a negative pull for me. That is when I didn't even have any real 'trauma' so to speak. There are many who do have such trauma in their past and I am sure that the need to repress such memories is far stronger in such cases. Either way though, they can be dealt with.

I wonder if those researching the memory and such topic matter have considered literature from Hypnotherapy and related disciplines - I feel it could help shed further light on the matter if they have not.

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