Are there historical records
of repressed/recovered memories?
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.
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.
Some replies described instances of normal forgetfulness.
Others 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.
Still 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.
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."
David Bromwich is a professor of English at Yale University and wrote "Disowned
by Memory: Wordsworth’s Poetry in the 1790s," He suggests that the
"... was full of poets and others saying that the mind works by a
combination of invention and re-creation of material from half-forgotten
Dr. 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
" '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
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
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: