Can Memories be Repressed

Ever since 1989, the topic of traumatic memories and their ability to be repressed and later recovered had been hotly debated by psychologists. Many psychologists hold the view that traumatic repressed memories absolutely exist and can be recovered, and many psychologists believe that traumatic memories can not be repressed and precisely recalled. While both sides have seemingly rational and convincing arguments, the skeptical psychologists seem to have a more persuasive argument.

The psychologists that believe that traumatic memories can be repressed and recovered have brought forth many valid arguments. They argue that since so much activity in the brain occurs unconsciously, it is probable that traumatic memories can be repressed and, according to research, even impact behavior, though the activity does not occur consciously. Studies have also shown that it’s easier to forget unpleasant memories than it is to forget pleasant memories, which works so that if, for example, someone is abused, it would be easier to forget or repress the memory of abuse than it would be for someone to forget a happy memory. Despite being criticized for having “methodological flaws,” a 1994 study by Linda Meyer Williams, published in the Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, is often cited as being proof of repressed memories, as it states that 38% of sexually abused women sampled in the study did not remember being abused. Since being sexually abused is a negative experience, William’s study goes hand in hand with the studies that state that it’s easier to forget negative experiences than positive experiences, making even more of a case for the existence of repressed memories.

While the proponents of the repression of traumatic memories present a good case, the opponents seem to have more evidence against it. The main reason that opponents of the idea of traumatic memory repression would be false memories. False memories are defined as “distortions of actual events and the recall of events that didn’t actually happen.” Numerous studies have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that false memories exist and can be as vivid as memories of actual events that have occurred in an individual’s life. While the existence of false memories can not discredit the existence of repressed traumatic memories, it certainly creates quite a case against them. In experiments, researchers have been able to create many false memories in participants. After being repeatedly asked questions about childhood trauma or illness after eating a specific food, the participants actually reported detailed memories of the events, even though the events never happened. In addition to being able to create false memories in participants, psychologists have been able to pinpoint different traits that would make an individual more susceptible to false memory, including introversion, disassociation, proneness to fantasy. It is believed that people have false memories as a result of therapists convincing people that they’ve been abused in the past and have repressed memories of it, and in an attempt to retrieve these memories actually plant false memories in them. This combined with popular culture’s portrayal of all people who have a negative view of themselves or mental issues as harboring repressed memories makes people believe that they are, in fact, repressing memories. This leads to convinced individuals to search themselves for repressed memories, and in the process, creating false memories.

Though both sides of the traumatic memory repression debate have substantial amounts of evidence supporting their beliefs, the opponents seem to have a more convincing argument against it than the proponents have for it. Although there is currently no way to be certain about which side is correct, future studies will shine more light on the brain’s ability to store information and whether repression and recovery can occur.