Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Repressed Memory Is Poorly Understood

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Repressed Memory Is Poorly Understood

Article excerpt

Recently a potential witness in the O.J. Simpson trial explained an apparent contradiction in previous statements by saying that he had "repressed," and later recovered, his memory of racist statements allegedly made several years earlier by Detective Mark Fuhrman of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Let us set aside, for the moment, the Simpson case itself and examine this question of repressed memories.

Claims of repression - and subsequent recovery of repressed memories - have become increasingly commonplace in recent years, especially in instances of allegations of childhood sexual abuse. But the processes involved are poorly understood - too often even by mental health professionals - and thus are potentially abused.

Claims of repression and recovery of repressed memories are based on several popular "theories," or assumptions, about memory. One assumption is that the brain, which is responsible for memory, functions like a computer in storing incoming data (experiences) for future access. Exponents of this idea sometimes assume that everything that ever happens to us, perhaps even from before birth, has been automatically stored and is, under the right circumstances, available for retrieval.

The concept of repression is based on the theories of Sigmund Freud, who suggested that some memories might be too painful to retain in conscious memory and therefore might be repressed into unconscious memory. For example, this theory suggests that memories of extremely traumatic events, such as war or childhood abuse, might be so repressed.

The recovery of repressed memories, drawing from these two assumptions, occurs when something - a similar experience, a random event or even a suggestion by a skillful psychotherapist - "unlocks" the memory blockage, allowing the repressed material to be recalled, often with intense emotions. Because of the vividness of such memories, the intensity of the accompanying emotions and the horror that they often embody, they are often accepted as accurate. After all, why would anyone remember anything so terrible if it were not true?

The problem is that these beliefs are based on assumptions that are, at best, unproved and, at worst, not supported by psychological research. As a result we have, in popular culture, a growing reliance on processes that may not - and in some instances do not - exist at all.

Let me be clear about some issues that are not controversial. Abuse of children, including sexual abuse, does exist, and it exists in numbers far more frequent than once believed. All such abuse is traumatic, and some of that abuse is particularly heinous.

Furthermore, repression certainly does occur in some instances of extreme or continuing trauma, apparently through a psychological process now labeled "disassociation" - a person distances himself from awareness of the traumatizing event - similar to being "in shock. …

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