Repressed Memory

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIn the January-February issue of Harvard Magazine, there is a short piece on “Repressed Memory: A Cultural Symptom?  The basic point: some “neurological” symptoms are cultural.  Harrison Pope, co-director of the Biological Psychiatry Lab at McLean Hospital, posted a $1000 bet that no one could identify a “case of dissociative amnesia in any work of fiction or nonfiction prior to 1800.”  The exception was found—a 1786 opera—and the $1000 dolled out.  But that only helped prove the researchers’ premise: unlike some other neurological phenomena, repressed memory appears to be a culture-bound syndrome.  (What’s also impressive is that these are hard-core neuroscientists arguing for this…)

 For example, accounts of hallucinations and depression appear in the world’s literature for hundreds of years.  But the development of amnesia after a serious traumatic event, such as being raped or witnessing the death of a friend, appears to be a phenomena developed initially in modern Western culture and then imposed on the brain.   

Pope et al. first point to how in Europe, Descartes declared the supremacy of the mind over body and then the rise of Romanticism “created fertile soil for the idea that the mind could expunge a trauma from consciousness.”  Subsequently, the development of ideas of a self-aware but limited ego over an unruly and trauma-filled unconscious, the legacy of psychoanalytic theory, became one factor in the development of repressed memory as a cultural phenomenon.  The final one?  Hollywood, where repressed memory appears as an “ideal dramatic device,” first on film and then in real life.  (Here’s the link to the Pope et al. research article.)

Anthropologists might add our models of self, our use of social self-presentation, and emerging idioms for distress (see Kirmayer & Young [1998], Culture and Somatization, for a relevant consideration).  All of these interact to help dictate what memories, real or false, are relevant and just how traumatic those memories might be.

 Here’s one example on trauma and recall taken from research on sexual abuse.  Research by Widom & Morris (1997) on court-documented cases of childhood sexual abuse showed that self-recall of the abuse by young adults is not automatic.  The authors summarize, “The underreporting we found means that there is a substantial group of people with documented histories of childhood sexual abuse who do not report these experiences when asked in young adulthood to do so. Whether this is due to loss of memory, denial, or embarrassment is not known.”

 In the study there were significant gender differences: “Approximately 16% of men with documented cases of sexual abuse considered their early childhood experiences sexual abuse, compared with 64% of women with documented cases of sexual abuse. These gender differences may reflect inadequate measurement techniques or an unwillingness on the part of men to disclose this information. They may also reflect differences in the meaning of these behaviors for men and women, particularly viewed in a cultural context. Gender differences in reporting and in perceptions of early childhood experiences may reflect early socialization experiences in which men learn to view these behaviors as nonpredatory and nonabusive. Many of the sexual experiences considered to be sexual abuse (e.g., showing/touching sex organs, kissing in a sexual way) may be seen as developmental rites of passage, part of a learning process. Men reported more sexual experiences in which they touched the other person. Social pressures against reporting certain kinds of early childhood experiences may also lead to greater reluctance among men to report. Future research ought to examine whether the underreporting by men is due to embarrassment or to perceptions about sexual experiences.”

 In terms of the impact of sexual abuse on mental health, particularly depression, Widom & Morris found: “It was surprising that we did not find that women or men with documented cases of childhood sexual abuse were at increased risk of being diagnosed with depression according to DSM–III–R criteria, despite the widespread belief that childhood sexual abuse leads to depression. We did, however, find a significant relationship between retrospective self-report measures of childhood sexual abuse and depression diagnosis. Thus, this pattern of findings suggests that the relationship between childhood sexual abuse and depression is complicated and may depend on a person’s cognitive appraisal of early life events.”

 Summarizing their results, they write: “Consistent with much of the clinical literature based on retrospective self-reports, the present results indicate that the way people define their early childhood experiences (in this case, childhood sexual abuse) is important and meaningful in terms of understanding their current functioning.”   [If you want to keep exploring “recovered memories,” this article looks like a good starting place from the cognitive neuroscience side: CR Brewin,  B Andrews (1998), Recovered memories of trauma Phenomenology and cognitive mechanisms, Clinical Psychology Review 18(8):  949-970.  And for those of you interested in a reflection on both the Pope article and the recall of sexual abuse, this piece from the Mayo Clinic appears useful:]

 Alongside how we work with our memory (or our memory works us…?), another factor in repressed memory might be the notion of “possible selves.”  This New York Times article on “The New Year’s Cocktail: Regret With a Dash of Bitters” discusses how in the aftermath of events, people often ruminate on “lost possible selves, some psychologists call them. Others are more blunt: the person you could have been.”  The article summarizes: “Over the past decade and a half, psychologists have studied how regrets — large and small, recent and distant — affect people’s mental well-being. They have shown, convincingly though not surprisingly, that ruminating on paths not taken is an emotionally corrosive exercise. The common wisdom about regret — that what hurts the most is not what you did but what you didn’t do — also appears to be true, at least in the long run.”

 There is variation in the way people handle regret: “Researchers find that people think about past foul-ups or missed opportunities in several ways. Some tend to fixate and are at an elevated risk for mood problems. Others have learned to ignore regrets and seem to live more lighthearted, if less-examined, lives. In between are those who walk carefully through the minefield of past choices, gamely digging up traps and doing what they can to defuse the live ones.”

 We live in a modern world where memory techniques are changing quickly, where the self has gained such definitional importance, and where the realm of possibilities and choices often continuously confront us.  Can these lead literally to repressed memory?  I am not sure.  But certainly we are at a point where a realm of cultural and psychological processes interact with our memories in potent ways.  Enough so that we have our own culture-bound syndromes.

7 thoughts on “Repressed Memory

  1. Daniel —

    This posting really struck me on a lot of levels. I once wrote a response to a fascinating piece on a dynamic systems approach to emotion in Behavioral and Brain Science, and I tried to give some examples of how cultural and behavioral patterns would affect emotional dynamics, even on an endocrine and other organic levels. I didn’t even consider these examples, and they seem terribly interesting (more interesting than the examples I gave at the time, such as grief, I think).

    The very strong possibility that, as you put it, modern ‘memory techniques’ may be affecting the way that ‘trauma’ is unfolding psychologically and etiologically, is fascinating. For example, it might suggest that ‘violence’ is now more ‘violent,’ in a phenomenological and psychological sense, because of the way it affects the victim. It might help explain why there was not more evidence of serious post-traumatic psychological symptoms in society where violence against children, even in perfectly functional families, was probably excessive by current standards.

    The implications, too, in situations where ‘violence’ was or is more pervasive than in the West are also wide reaching. In Australia, we’ve recently been talking a lot about sexual abuse of Aboriginal children, and some of the cases in the media are chilling, just really sickening. But even background levels of violence in some remote places seem to be quite high; certainly, growing up in rural area, I was exposed to a much higher level of everyday violence than some of my peers (fist fights between kids, ‘spear’ fights with river reeds — don’t laugh, they hurt like shit –, ice ball fights, frisbee fights that sometimes degenerated into hitting each other with metal trash can lids, ‘smear the queer’ a brutal rugby-like game that we played on the school parking lot — ouch –, soccer with minimal rules, football with fewer rules, wedgies, some hunting, and a host of other boys’ customs that were pretty intense). And yet, I feel fairly safe arguing that levels of psychological illness were probably no higher than in much more protected, violence-free environments. Certainly, there were low level male psychological pathologies — inability to express emotions, refusal to seek medical care, shortened life expectancy, etc. — but these were probably as much due to social influences themselves as due to flow on effects from the violence.

    How is this possible? Your posting suggests that ‘violence’ as a long-term psychological force is partially determined by patterns of recollection and definition; violence is only ‘violence’ in a particular setting (of course, there might be levels of violence or forms that are more or less susceptible to contextual variation, or people with more or less susceptibility, both as victim or perpetrator). Part of the problem in anthropology right now is that we tend to see acts of violence as part of Violence, a universal, continuous category. And it includes things like ‘symbolic violence’ and ‘structural violence.’ This conflation might do away with indigenous distinctions that are actually necessary to preserve mental health in that violent acts not recalled as such (treated as ‘normal’ or not a big deal or whatever) are less likely to cause long-term mental health problems.

    Now that I write this, I’m not so sure, but it’s a suspicion that I have because I work in violent sports. There’s a kind of pious declaration around them that, well, violence is bad, but these sports really aren’t ‘violent.’ In fact, there violent as hell, but does that mean that they necessarily affect participants’ health negatively? And are former soldiers who do not recall much of their experience ‘healthy’ or ‘suffering PTSD’? As you point out, our ‘memory techniques,’ expectations, and definitions of violence would profoundly affect this.

  2. As a post script, the article on a dynamic systems approach to emotion is:

    Marc D. Lewis. 2005. Bridging emotion theory and neurobiology through dynamic systems modeling. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28 (2):169-194.

    My commentary is a short one a few pages after that.

  3. Here’s what Erin, a colleague and friend who works on PTSD among returning US veterans, emailed me about the above post and comment:

    “I’m particularly intrigued by the notion of regret and where that fits in. I love the contrast this brings up – i.e., repressed memories are considered culturally dangerous, but (possibly) obsessive memories are considered, simply, regret about roads not taken. What does that say about the Western view of life and self? I’m struck by the fact that, among the PTSD-diagnosed veterans I’ve been talking with, many of them seem to deeply regret the fact that they’re no longer in the military, whether due to illness or injury or their own choice. But whether the regret is a symptom or a cause of the failure to move on with forging themselves new, positive identities, I’m unable to sort out.

    I’m also interested in Greg Downey’s complaint about violence as “Violence” – a frustration I’ve been nurturing for a while. I’ve been watching a lot of violent movies and sports (particularly Mixed-Martial Arts) since I ended up down here, and nobody talks about traumatic memory after a boxing match. Now, whether that sort of discussion is just outside the sports ethos enough that it’s not part of what emerges into public view, or whether it’s comparable to all those people who, like Downey, grew up rough but turned out fine, I don’t know. Trauma is relative, I suppose, like everything else. But it does make the effort to develop universal definitions pretty complicated.”

    As for violent movies, and all the essentialist psychological research that violent movies must be bad for us, I found this recent piece to be a quite refreshing addition to the debate: “Economists Say Movie Violence Might Temper the Real Thing.” Here’s the link:

  4. I was looking at Discover Magazine’s Top 100 science stories of 2007 last night as I waited for my son, doing his cub scouts meeting at the local library. The recent work of Joseph Ledoux came up, specifically that his lab had found how to expunge specific (fear-related) memories in rats, thus eliminating their fear reaction (mediating by a different part of the brain, the amygdala). As the story goes, “the memory gone, the fear it roused vanished as well.”

    The Discover article makes the point from LeDoux that memories are living, changing things and can be manipulated whenever evoked. “Your memory of a specific event is only as good as your last memory of it.” This is an important point for the work above (though I think it goes a bit too far in making its point–some memories are not quite as labile as this quote makes it seem). Here’s a link that describes the experimental results in more detail:

    One other point, however, before we start placing all our hopes on “memory drugs”–LeDoux points out that memories are stored in broad networks, so drugs are likely to have too global effects on all our memories. That said, the article on LeDoux in this month’s Popular Science, “Paging Dr. Fear,” discusses how therapists want to incorporate these sorts of drugs into targeted behavior therapies, thus trying to get the best of both pharmacological and talk treatment together.

  5. Vaughan at MindHacks has a piece Does Freudian Repression Exists?, relating a new paper by Yacov Rofe challenging the classic theory:

    “Rofé is careful to point out that Freud’s ideas about the repression of memory were not that we can deliberately forget or ignore traumatic experiences (as is often assumed by both professionals and lay people), but that process is supposedly unconscious (and so not deliberate) and that it was ‘pathogenic’ – in other words, a cause of mental distress and mental illness.

    “Rofé also notes that psychoanalysis was assumed to make people better by uncovering and lifting repression to make people better adjusted (although this has largely been rejected by modern therapists).

    “In contrast to these theories, Rofé cites evidence that people tend to remember rather than repress traumatic experiences, that banishing unpleasant memories tends to be a useful way of coping for many people (although interestingly, probably bad for physical health), that there is no evidence for unconsciously motivated forgetting, and that psychoanalytic therapy doesn’t seem to work by ‘lifting repression’.”

  6. I was sexually abused for 7 years by older boys in the neighborhood where I grew up. I was also beaten by a psychotic father from my earliest memories until age 15. I have made two videos that have been used by churches, law enforcement, psychology grps, etc.

    Here they are if you are interested. ANYONE has permission to post and/or embed these, or use them for groups, etc.

    A Childhood Changed:

    The Aftermath:

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