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Recovered memory therapy

What are repressed & recovered memories?

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Classical recovered memories:

Repressed "memories" generally start off as fragments of images that are recovered during long periods -- typically months -- of recovered memory therapy (RMT). RMT is a group of suggestive therapeutic methods that some therapists use to recover what they believe to be long-forgotten or repressed memories. RMT is now used by a diminishing number of therapists. RMT was a hotly debated topic within the mental health community during the 1980s and 1990s. The conflict has now largely been resolved, as almost all therapists have abandoned the practice:
bullet Most memory researchers and therapists believe that any serious abuse after the age of about 4 will be remembered into adulthood - particularly if it was repeated. They look upon recovered memories with suspicion, feeling that most are not based on real events but on a collection of memories of  horror movies, terror TV programs, scary books, etc. Hypnagogic nightmares (those experienced immediately upon falling asleep) and hypnopompic nightmares (those experienced at wakening) have also been cited as one source of memories of "having been sexually molested. There would be a vivid description of a 'faceless specter,' usually a hulking figure, coming upon them in the darkness of their bedrooms." 1

Belief in the unreliability of recovered memories is reinforced by the statements of all of the major mental health professional associations.
bullet A diminishing number of recovered memory therapists still believe that many people actively repress memories of abuse and store them what is called "traumatic memory". This is a part of the brain that is not normally accessible by the conscious brain. According to this belief system, an adult could have been sexually abused as a child hundreds (or even thousands) of times and have no current memory of any of the events, even though the adult could recall other memories of mundane childhood activities from those same years. The survivors might not even retain a vague recollection that something dreadful happened during their childhood. These therapists believe that the more serious and frequent the abuse was, the more likely the memories will be repressed. This concept of repressed memories is gradually being abandoned by therapists.

Although most memories are recovered after extensive counseling with a therapist, some individuals have recovered repressed "memories" outside of formal therapy. Frequently, self-help books like The Courage to Heal are involved. The techniques are the same; they are simply self-administered. Mutual support group for survivors of sexual abuse are another environment in which memories are often recovered.

Dormant memories: a different type of lost memory:

There may be another mechanism by which forgotten memories can be retrieved. We once called them "triggered memories." However, the term "trigger" has been used extensively by individuals who believe that they have been the victims of Satanic Ritual Abuse, and similar horrendous experiences. So, we prefer the term "dormant memories."

Sometimes abusive events during childhood will be gradually be forgotten, but are later suddenly restored through some triggering mechanism. A person who was abused during childhood and who eventually forgot the abuse might see a photograph of the abuser, read an article about abuse, hear of a reference to the abuser, etc. Very quickly, the memories are restored -- often in seconds. No therapy is usually involved. The results are unexpected, and are frequently very disturbing to the individual. 

Ross Cheit, an associate professor of political science at Brown University appears to have experienced dormant memories. He had just learned that his nephew was going to join a boy's choir and attend summer music camp. Cheit had himself gone to the same choir and camp. A few months of distress followed. Then, he had a dream of a particular camp counselor. When he woke, memories of sexual abuse came flooding back. He tracked down the former counselor who confessed that he had been an abusive pedophile. 2,3

The author is aware of a instance in which a friend experienced dormant memories while reading a newspaper article about a child molester. As in Cheit's case, the memories came surging back quickly -- only a matter of minutes in her case. No therapy was involved. The memories had been long-forgotten. After their restoration, she was distressed. She complained to the police and laid a charge against the abuser. About a dozen other women had already contacted the authorities -- mainly because of reading the article. All of the others had always remembered the abuse. Many key items in my friend's abuse correlated perfectly with the ever-present memories of the other women. This included the location, details of the interior of the house where the abuse happened, and the perpetrator's MO. He pleaded guilty all charges and was given a jail sentence of two years per abuse incident --perceived as reasonable by his victims. The judge ordered that they be served concurrently. In effect, he served less than two months per abused child.

We suspect that "dormant memories" are simply ordinary memories stored in the brain which have simply remained not accessed for a long period of time. The person had no reason to recall them. But when some form of trigger materialized, they accessed the memories -- sometimes after decades of dormancy. We suspect that the process of remembering "dormant memories" are no different from the common experience of meeting a person that you have not seen in decades, talking about old times, and recalling shared experiences that you have not thought about in years.

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How these types of memories differ:

We treat dormant memories as being very different from repressed memories:

bullet The recovery of repressed memories typically start as vague partial images that arise after long periods of therapy, or during attempts at self-hypnosis, or while attending mutual support groups of victims/survivors of abuse. They emerge very slowly and coalesce into what feel like real memories. All, or almost all, cannot be corroborated by independent evidence. There is a growing belief that they are generally unreliable They rarely relate to real events, and are probably based on nightmares, horror comics, frightening TV programs and movies, etc.
bullet Dormant memories typically are forgotten memories of real events that rush back into consciousness after a trigger, generally without any involvement with a therapist. From our limited experience, they seem to be reasonably reliable.

Both feel absolutely real to the victim/survivor. Both have the power to destroy families of origin, disable individuals, and sometimes prompt a person to committing suicide.

The remainder of this group of essays will deal only with the classical form of recovered memories -- those created during long periods of therapy, self-hypnosis. or  .

Reaction of the professional community to recovered & dormant memories:

As of the year 2002, "memory wars" are gradually subsiding. Generally speaking, most therapists and almost all memory researchers agree with the False Memory Syndrome Foundation who believe that:

bullet Childhood sexual abuse is a very widespread and serious problem.
bullet "Some of our memories are true, some are a mixture of fact and fantasy, and some are false." 5
bullet Recovered memory therapy is potentially dangerous, because the "memories" that are generated are of unknown accuracy.
bullet The efficacy and safety of RMT has never been studied.
bullet "Memories" uncovered during RMT should not be acted upon unless their accuracy is first verified.

The relatively few therapists who still support RMT take a different position:

bullet Childhood sexual abuse is a very widespread and serious problem.
bullet In some severe cases, "...a child may develop 'dissociative amnesia,' or memory loss..."
bullet "For some, memories and feelings may emerge at a later date."
bullet "...over 68 studies have documented the reality of recovering forgotten memories of traumatic events."
bullet "Dissociative amnesia is...listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV)"
bullet "...research on adults with documented child abuse histories has demonstrated that accurate remembering of forgotten trauma is possible." 5

A great deal of the remaining confusion over RMT involves triggered memories:


Dormant memories

Repressed memories

Recovery/creation process An unexpected trigger, like seeing a photo or news item. Therapy using hypnosis and other suggestive techniques
Time interval Memories appear suddenly Memories appear gradually, after a long period of therapy
Likelihood memories are true High Low

Although these two types of memory retrieval appear to be completely different phenomena, many professionals on both sides of the memory wars seem to ignore dormant memories.

bullet Many who support the false memory syndrome state that some forgotten memories that return to consciousness are unrelated to real events, whereas others are accurate.
bullet Those opposing the false memory syndrome often quote examples of dormant memories that have been verified as accurate. Then they use those examples as proof that accurate, forgotten memories can be recovered during RMT therapy.

No one is well served if the principals in the memory wars continue to ignore a major mechanism by which memories can be retrieved.


  1. Francis Kane, "Hallucinations and 'Recovered Memories'," The Skeptical Inquirer, Letters to the editor, 2001-JUL-1, Page 73.
  2. Michele Landsberg, "Memories of molestation recovered by men, too," Toronto Start, Toronto ON, 2000-MAR-4, Page R1
  3. Ross Cheit, "The Recovered Memory Project," at:
  4. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation's web site is at:
  5. "Recovered memories: true or false?," Media release of the Leadership Council for Mental Health, Justice and the Media," 2002-AUG-15.
  6. The Leadership Council for Mental Health, Justice and the Media has a web site at:

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Copyright 1996 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-NOV-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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