Repressed Memories: Real or Imagined?

fingers clenched on rebar fenceMany people believe that when experiences are too painful or difficult to face, they end up tucked into the unseen corners of the unconscious in the form of repressed memories[1]. The presence of hidden truths in the psyche may then manifest in myriad ways in waking life: panic attacks[2], nightmares, anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, and issues with self-esteem[3], to name a few.

Sexual trauma, in particular, is viewed by a number of therapists as being especially susceptible to repression[4] (Loftus, 1993). The memories may remain locked away for years before surfacing, which typically occurs in a therapeutic setting.

Several people, mainly women, who recollect memories of abuse 10, 20, 30, or more years after the abuse[5] occurred have sued the perpetrators in court for damages to physical and psychological well-being. Many have won.

However, over the past few decades, the notion of repressed memories has sparked a great deal of controversy in the mental health field. This became especially heated during what became known as the “memory wars” of the 1990s.

Clinical psychologists and therapists who have witnessed adult clients remembering repressed experiences of childhood abuse[6] argue that the memories are real, vivid, detailed, and reliable. Researchers tend to be more hesitant to accept the concept of repression as fact due to the lack of scientific evidence in support of it (Association for Psychological Science, 2013).

Findings reported recently in Psychological Science suggest that this controversy remains just as prevalent today, and that skepticism has actually increased with time. One of the researchers, Lawrence Patihis of the University of California, Irvine, said in a press release issued by the Association for Psychological Science (2013), “Whether repressed memories are accurate or not, and whether they should be pursued by therapists, or not, is probably the single most practically important topic in clinical psychology since the days of Freud and the hypnotists[7] who came before him.”

1 2 3 4 5