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Religious Tolerance logo

Repressed and recovered memories

Are there historical records
of repressed/recovered memories?

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Sponsored link.

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A worldwide challenge:

Dr. Harrison Pope, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and a group of other psychiatrists and literary scholars offered a reward of $1,000 US to anyone who could document a case of sustained repressed memory in a healthy, lucid person prior to the year 1800 CE. Either fictional or real occurrences were acceptable, including:

"... (novels, poems, dramas, epics, the Bible, essays, medical treatises, or any other sources), in English or in any work that has been translated into English..." 1

On their web site, they specify that:

"To qualify as a bona fide case, the individual described in the work must:
1) experience a severe trauma (abuse, sexual assault, a near-death experience, etc.); and
2) develop amnesia for that trauma for months or years afterwards (i.e. be clearly unable to remember the traumatic event as opposed to merely denying or avoiding the thought); where
3) the amnesia cannot be explained by biological factors, such as a) early childhood amnesia -- in which the individual was under age five at the time of the trauma, or b) neurological impairment due to head injury, drug or alcohol intoxication, or biological diseases. Also, the individual must
4) 'recover' the lost memory at some later time, even though the individual had previously been unable to access the memory." 1

One example that matches all of the four criteria is in Rudyard Kipling's novel, "Captains Courageous." After Penn's entire family is drowned in a flood, he develops complete amnesia of the event. Later, as a fisherman on a on a Grand Banks schooner, he suddenly recovers his memories after a tragic collision at sea. He then describes the loss of his family to other members of the crew. 1 However, this example does not qualify for the challenge, because the novel was written in 1896, almost a century after the cutoff date. 19th century novels contain many such events.

The team noted that:

"Natural human psychological phenomena, such as depression, anxiety, delusions, hallucinations and dementia, are documented across the ages in both fictional and non-fictional works." 2

They attempted to find out whether "dissociative amnesia" or repressed/recovered memories were similarly documented through history. Their rational was that if repressed memories are a natural phenomenon, they would also have been noticed and documented in ancient times. Dr Pope noted that:

"This is such a graphic phenomenon that you would expect to find many allusions to it, and not merely oblique ones,"

During 2006-MAR, they posted their challenge in three languages, in various newspapers and on over 30 websites where repressed memories might be discussed.

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Results of the study:

They received more than 100 responses to their offer. They found that none of the submissions discussed an instance of dissociative amnesia for a traumatic event.

bulletSome replies described instances of normal forgetfulness.
bulletOthers described infantile amnesia. This is the well known inability of young children to store events in long-term memory. Most adults have no memories of events that happened before they were 42 months of age. Valid memories from before 24 months of age are unknown.
bulletStill others described biological amnesia -- loss of memory due to injury or other biological causes.

The closest historical record to an event resembling repressed memory was submitted by Richard J. McNally, a Harvard psychologist and a repressed-memory skeptic. In the 1782 novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," Madame de Tourvel was so distressed after being unfaithful to her husband that she could not recall the event. She arrived at a convent with no memory of what motivated her to go there. But the loss of memory was temporary; it soon rushed back into her consciousness. "Dangerous Liaisons," a movie version of the novel was made in 1988 with Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich playing the lead roles.

An earlier example was "Heracles," a play written by Euripides circa 416 BCE. In the play, Herecles is forced by a goddess to kill his wife and children in a fit of madness. 3 He is later injured, and the injury causes him to forget the incident.

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Their conclusions:

The Repression Challenge team concluded that:

"If dissociative amnesia for traumatic events were a natural psychological phenomenon, an innate capacity of the brain, then throughout the millennia before 1800, individuals would presumably have witnessed such cases and portrayed them in non-fictional works or in fictional characters. The absence of cases before 1800 cannot reasonably be explained by arguing that our ancestors understood or described psychological phenomena so differently as to make them unrecognizable to modern readers because spontaneous complete amnesia for a major traumatic event, in an otherwise lucid individual, is so graphic that it would be recognizable even through a dense veil of cultural interpretation. Therefore, it appears that dissociative amnesia is not a natural neuropsychological phenomenon, but instead a culture-bound syndrome, dating from the nineteenth century." 2

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bulletDavid Bromwich is a professor of English at Yale University and wrote "Disowned by Memory: Wordsworth’s Poetry in the 1790s," He suggests that the Romantic period

"... was full of poets and others saying that the mind works by a combination of invention and re-creation of material from half-forgotten memories."

bulletDr. David Spiegel is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He was a member of the Working Group on Dissociative Disorders that revised the DSM diagnostic system to include dissociative disorders. He said:

"It looks to me like they had an answer in mind before they did the study and found what they were looking for."

He has submitted a rebuttal to the Psychological Medicine journal, citing material from Greek literature that he believes links trauma and forgetfulness.

Benedict Carey of the New York Times writes:

"The scientific dispute is over what constitutes normal forgetting. Studies show that healthy people usually remember frightening or dangerous incidents more vividly than other experiences: the brain preserves these impressions because they are important for survival. But those who believe in the brain’s ability actively to repress say this system may break down if the memory is too upsetting."

" 'Dr. Pope is famous for saying trauma is memorable, but when he is presented with cases of forgetting trauma — as in the 101 cases in my Web site — his answer is that they are normal forgetting,' Ross E. Cheit, a political scientist at Brown University who runs the site recoveredmemory.org , said in an e-mail message."

"Dr. McNally replied that even if a once vivid memory has not surfaced in years, that does not mean it has been actively repressed. For example, he said, a child might initially be more confused than upset upon receiving sexual advances from a relative. The brain stores the memory, stuffed into a neural drawer with a thousand other mysteries of childhood, until years later, when the repulsiveness of the act suddenly hits the person, now an adult."

" 'It's not repression; it’s just that the person hasn’t thought about it in many years, hasn’t appreciated how reprehensible it was,' Dr. McNally said. The notion of repressed memory, he went on, is a 'culturally provided narrative to account for the fact that the memory is now retrospectively reappraised as traumatic'." 4

The researchers have a contact form on their web site are still receiving suggestions on their web site. 5

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "$1000 award....," Biological Psychiatry Laboratory, at: http://biopsychlab.com/
  2. Harrison C. Pope, Jr., et al., "Is dissociative amnesia a culture-bound syndrome? Findings from a survey of historical literature," Psychological Medicine, (2007-FEB), 37: 225-233. Abstract only. See: http://journals.cambridge.org/
  3. "Heracles (Euripides)," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  4. Benedict Carey, "A study of memory looks at fact and fiction," the New York Times, Arts section, 2007-FEB-03.
  5. "Repre$$ion Challenge," contact form, Biological Psychiatry Laboratory, Mclean Hospital, at: http://biopsychlab.com/

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Copyright © 1996 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-FEB-04
Author: B.A. Robinson.

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