In 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 , 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: http://www.mayoclinicproceedings.com/pdf%2F8209%2F8209sa.pdf]
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.