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The original article, and a rebuttal:

Brown, Scheflin & Whitfield wrote an article in the Journal of Psychiatry & Law in support of the existence of repressed memories being caused by traumatic events. This is an important report, because such repression must happen often if Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT) is to have any validity. They concluded that the studies that they had analyzed from many countries around the world give support to the reality of memory repression (a.k.a. dissociative amnesia). 1

Piper, Pope & Borowiecki wrote a followup article in the same journal analyzing the study by Brown et al., and concluding that none of the studies examined support memory repression. 2

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Nine claims of memory repression, with rebuttals:

Assertion by Brown, et al. Rebuttal by Piper et al.
A study by Cardena & Spiegel states that they found amnesia in 3 to 5% of the most severely affected group. No such statement exists in the Cardena & Spiegel report
Two of 38 victims of lightning suffered amnesia. The boys received the equivalent to an Electroconvulsive Treatment (ECT), which is known to damage the brain and thus produce simple biological amnesia. This is unrelated to RMT, and repressed memories.
In a study of flash flood survivors, some suffered from amnesia. No evidence is provided in the report that indicates that any of the victims actually forgot the tragedy itself -- the flash flood.
In another study of flood survivors, 7% of the children could not recall parts of what had happened. Some of the children were as young as 2 years of age -- an age at which children are incapable of having long-term memories.
In a pipeline disaster, a report showed that more of the victims suffered amnesia than did a control group. No evidence is provided in the report that indicates that any of the victims actually forgot the actual event.
Among older children of an earthquake, 32% suffered amnesia 49 of the 50 children had symptoms of  "re-experiencing" the earthquake, including "intrusive recollections" in 46 of the 49. There is no evidence that any child forgot the actual earthquake.
Some child survivors of the Nazi holocaust are troubled by memories -- either too much or too little. The original quotation referred mainly to young children who had lost their parents to the Holocaust when the children were very young. Thus one would expect them to have few, if any, memories of their parents. There is no evidence that any subject forgot their involvement in the Holocaust.
A study of Norwegian camp survivors indicated that 78% suffered from loss of memory or failing memory. The report actually reports that 78% of the survivors suffered failing memories, not lost memories.
A study of Bosnian refugees found that 20% suffered amnesia Only four subjects were involved. Three of them reported amnesia "once a week or less, a little bit, once in a while." One had amnesia "2-4 times per week, somewhat." No victim had continuous amnesia of the ethnic cleansing.

As a minimum, it would seem that the assertions by Brown et al. are not supported by the original studies that they quote. One can conclude that the existence of memory repression brought about by serious emotional or physical trauma is not supported by their report.

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  1. Brown, Scheflin and Whitfield, "Recovered memories: The current  weight of the evidence in science and in the courts," Journal of Psychiatry & Law, 27 (1999): 5-156.
  2. A. Piper, H. Pope, & Borowiecki, III, "Studies alledbed by Brown, Scheflin and Whitfield to provide evidence of dissociative amnesia," Journal of Psychiatry & Law,  28 (2000),149-213.

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Copyright 2002 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-NOV-23
Latest update: 2002-NOV-23
Editor: B.A. Robinson

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