Repressed Memory

Nothing has shaken the world of psychology more than the memory wars. This controversy began in the 1990’s in response to the growing number of people, mostly women, beginning in the 1980’s, who claimed to have suddenly remembered severe trauma in their early childhoods. At first, these accounts of horrendous actions by family members done to hapless children were taken at face value and believed by most mainstream therapists.

However, in the 1990s after several people were sued in court by women trying to get compensation for their emotional distress, questions began to arise as to the validity of repressed memory. Soon after, some of the people who had brought lawsuits against their families began to question whether their stories were true and after much heart-wrenching thought, decided to retract their stories.

This reversal of belief in the reality of childhood trauma and the resurfacing of the memories of it began a firestorm that still rages to the present day.

The History of the Term Repressed Memory

At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, psychology was in its early infancy. It was then that Sigmund Freud burst onto the scene and began to investigate the idea of there being an unconscious mind. In his work, The Unconscious (Freud, 1915) wrote: 

“in support of there being an unconscious psychical state, that at any given moment consciousness includes only a small content, so that the greater part of what we call conscious knowledge must in any case be for very considerable periods of time in a state of latency or being psychically unconscious”  

Now we accept that there is a part of our minds that works independently of conscious thought, but at the time Freud’s work was revolutionary and controversial.

Freud and Repressed Memory

Freud examined his thoughts about the unconscious self, and came upon a theoretical concept that he called, “repressed memory” that he thought could explain much of the psychological behavior of humans.

Freud wrote that a repressed memory is defined:

“the essence of repression lies simply in turning something away and keeping it at a distance from the conscious.” (Knafo, 2009)

“. . .it was a question of things which the patient wished to forget, and therefore intentionally repressed from his conscious thought and inhibited and suppressed” (Breuer & Freud, 1895).

Freud used his theory of the repression of memories to begin using psychoanalysis to examine people who came to him with complaints such as depression and anxiety.  He did this because he believed that the motivation behind many mental health issues was that there were memories of sexual experiences that were buried in the subconscious mind and triggered back to remembrance in later years (Billig, 1999)

Later in his life, Freud decided that people do not repress memories because he believed the stories of childhood sexual trauma, he continued to hear on a regular basis from his female patients must not be real. There were too many of them, and he could not bring himself to believe that his wealthy client’s families would perpetrate such heinous crimes.

The Confusion of the Psychological Community

The psychological community was sent into a state of confusion over Freud’s disapproval of his own theory as to the existence of repression of memories. In effect, his denial caused the beginning of the split we see today on the validity of memories recovered in adulthood of traumatic events from childhood.  

A modern definition of repressed memory is it is a memory that has been unconsciously blocked due to it being associated with an increased level of stress due to trauma.

To further the confusion among mental health professionals, the term repressed memory is often replaced with the term dissociative amnesia, an inability to recall memories from one’s life. Dissociative amnesia may be localized to an event, or for a time and is selective.

The Proponents of Repressed Memory

Bessel Van der Kolk

There have been possible millions of cases in recent decades where clients who are in therapy claim to have recovered memories of childhood trauma that they had not remembered before. These memories are full of emotion and tragically recall episodes of childhood sexual abuse, neglect, and even torture perpetrated by the caregivers of the reporting adults.  

Proponents of repressed memories state that children under extreme distress can and do send the memory of the events that are causing them to feel helpless and in danger into the back of their minds.

They point to research done using people with documented histories of childhood trauma drawn from hospital and court records. When questioned seventeen years after the fact, 38% of the subjects did not remember the events having occurred, even though the trauma happened after they had passed the stage of childhood amnesia. (Van der Kolk, 1998)

The Hippocampus and Memory Repression

In a paper written by Dr. James Bremner in 2003, he speaks about how trauma in childhood effects the ability of the hippocampus to consolidate memories into easy to retrieve forms with other related memories (Bremner, 2003), Dr. Bremner uses research done by Dr. Bruce McEwen on the effects of the chronic release of cortisol into the human body showing how it can damage the hippocampus in a child’s brain.

As you may recall from a previous chapter, the hippocampus is vital to the ability of our minds to consolidate and store memory from our short term to long term memory stores. It is also responsible for filing our memories in an associated manner with others so that we can retrieve them later with the correct cue.

The damage Dr. McEwen found was the associated loss of neurons in the hippocampus and in the amount of dendritic branching. Without these neurons and the dendrites to propagate signals from one cell to the other, the hippocampus becomes unable to do correctly do its job. It cannot communicate effectively with the memory storage system for which it is responsible. This means that a memory, born of trauma, will not be correctly processed during consolidation and can be become dissociated from similar memories for easy retrieval later. (McEwen, 1999)

Bremner and His Work With Repressed Memory

Dr. Bremner goes on in his paper to speak of another discovery made while Dr. Ewen was examining combat veterans who have returned home with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The hippocampi of persons who had been diagnosed with PTSD were found in these studies to be smaller in right hippocampal volume by an average of 8%, explaining the problems combat veterans had with the consolidation of short-term memory into long term. He also states that Dr. Ewen found upon further inquiries using MRI studies, this population also had a 12% reduction in left hippocampal volume.

Upon further inspection, Dr. Bremner reported these findings were found to be consistent with people who report having been traumatized in their childhoods.

The links that are normally established between a new memory and a group of related memories are not made and the memory is lost until brain maturity.

The Opponents of Repressed Memory

Elizabeth Loftus

There can be no argument that memory is unreliable on the terms of always being an exact representation of an event in our lives. The fact that memories of trauma are present immediately after they occur in childhood is not in dispute. Also, not in dispute is the fact that false memories can be either accidentally or purposely implanted to form false memories that are perceived as real.

What is in dispute, however, is the claim by opponents of repressed memory, that almost all cases of the repression of traumatic events in childhood cannot be and are not lost until becoming retrievable in adulthood.

The Creation of False Memories

Two studies were carried out to investigate if college students would create false memories in response to false information given repeatedly in interviews with researchers. (Hyman, Husband, & Billings, 1995).

Both experiments consisted of students being given information that had supposedly come from their parents of events that did not occur after several interviews where truthful events had been discussed that did come from their parents.

Indeed, a significant majority of the students formed false memories grounded in the false information fed to them by the researchers. Dr. Elizabeth F. Loftus, a well-respected American cognitive psychologist and expert on human memory, has done much work in helping us to understand malleability of mankind’s memory.

Doctor Loftus has conducted more than two-hundred experiments involving over twenty-thousand subjects to document the effects on human memory when encountering misinformation that can induce the formation of a false memory.

Her research, and that of many other researchers, has opened questions as to the validity of those who claim to have remembered traumatic childhood events at the hands of perpetrators after entering therapy. This research cast doubt on the existence of repressed memories of events that happened to people in their childhoods.

A Possible Third Solution

In his book, Remembering Trauma, R.P. McNally, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University made the following statement about the research he and his colleagues conducted on the existence of repressed memories:

“our work also suggests a third perspective on recovered memories that does not require the concept of repression. Some children do not understand their CSA when it occurs, and do not experience terror. Years later, they recall the experience, and understanding it as abuse, suffer intense distress. The memory failed to come to mind for years, partly because the child did not encode it as terrifying (i.e., traumatic), not because the person was unable to recall it.” (McNally, 2005)

With this simple statement, McNally opens a new line of thought on why adults may recover memories of past traumatic events.

Ending Our Time Together

Research may paint us a more sinister picture than most will be able to reconcile in their minds. Not only does the abuse in childhood need to be repeated enough times to cause structural changes to the child’s brain, but the child must also experience fear or pain during the events.

Add the ingredient of terror into the mix, and one can see why the child’s brain is incapable of encoding and properly storing the memory of what has happened to them. Those memories get lost in the experiences the child has throughout their childhood, allowing them to move on with life. Without this safeguard to protect them, the child would become either insane or possibly die.    

“We are, all of us, just the sum of our memories. When we lose one we lose part of ourselves.” Shirley J. Davis


Billig, M. (1999). Freudian repression: Conversation creating the unconscious. Cambridge University Press.

Bremner, J. D., Vythilingam, M., Vermetten, E., Southwick, S. M., McGlashan, T., Nazeer, A., … & Ng, C. K. (2003). MRI and PET study of deficits in hippocampal structure and function in women with childhood sexual abuse and posttraumatic stress disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 160(5), 924-932.

Freud, S. (1915). Appendix C to the unconscious. Standard edition, 14, 159-215.

Hyman Jr, I. E., Husband, T. H., & Billings, F. J. (1995). False memories of childhood experiences. Applied cognitive psychology, 9(3), 181-197.

Knafo, D. (2009). Freud’s memory erased. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 26(2), 171.

Loftus, E., & Ketcham, K. (1996). The myth of repressed memory: False memories and allegations of sexual abuse. Macmillan.

McEWEN, B. R. U. C. E. (1999). Development of the cerebral cortex: XIII. Stress and brain development: II. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 38(1), 101-103.

McNally, R. J. (2005). Remembering trauma. Harvard University Press.

Van der Kolk, B. A. (1998). Trauma and memory. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 52(S1), S52-S64.

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