Repressed memories

Bill Skaggs bill at
Wed Dec 11 21:45:58 EST 1996

Laurie Davison <ldavison at> writes:

   >   What is the neural mechanism by which traumatic memories (such
   > as childhood abuse, etc) are repressed? Since this has only been
   > a recognized phenomenon for a short time, it may be that we still
   > don't know, but I would appreciate your input nonetheless.

"Repressed" memories have been a controversial subject recently,
because a number of cases have turned out to be not repressed memories
but false memories, created by a mechanism akin to hypnosis.  Some
psychologists have gone as far as to doubt the reality of ANY
repressed memories, but many more just feel that a certain level of
skepticism is called for.  Several books have been written on this
topic in the past few years.  Although I personally haven't read any
of them, I have the sense that the one by Daniel Schacter is the most
widely respected.  In any case, one of the common criticisms of
repressed memory is that there is no known neural mechanism capable of
accomplishing this.  Given the primitive state of our knowledge of
neural mechanisms, this is not a very strong criticism -- but I think
it answers your question.

   >   My reason for asking is that while "stuffing" ones emotions
   > during a traumatic event in order to get through it intact seems
   > like a survivable trait that may well have evolved as far back as
   > Australopithicus, "unstuffing" them later during adulthood does
   > *not* strike me as survivable at all. I am wondering why the
   > brain would chose to "remember" something later that it had
   > successfully "forgotten" at the time. Does this make sense? I'll
   > clarify if needed... 

According to the proponents of repressed memories, they rarely
re-emerge naturally; a lengthy course of therapy is required to bring
them out.  The claim is that even though they are not consciously
remembered, a little bit of them manages to "leak out" and cause
damage, and furthermore, that once the memories are brought to the
surface, the emotional consequences can be treated.  It all ultimately
goes back to Freud.

	-- Bill

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