Psychology

The myth of repressed memories


We all know the scene. The hypnotist bends over the client, swinging his pendulum, uttering the “magic spell”, something like “and now, remember!!! buuuuu!!!!” (all right, all right, I added the buuuu!!!! to build the proper mood).

The client’s eyes flutter (buuuuuu!!!!), sometimes he salivates a bit, and suddenly it hits him! He remembers how, as a child, he had to drink the blood of his younger sister, who was ritually sacrificed by their satanic father. Now he remembers it all and knows that this is the very reason he can’t find fulfillment in his work as a doctor (buuuu!!!! all right, all right, I’ll stop that now).

That is a seriously cool scene. It’s memorable. It’s emotional. That’s probably why it keeps on being repeated in so many movies, books and games.

One tiny problem though: it’s a complete and utter fiction. Based on current scientific knowledge, there’s no such thing as repressing traumatic memories. In fact, it’s the other way around: people who experienced trauma tend to have problems getting rid of such memories.

This does make sense from an evolutionary perspective. If we repressed memories of traumatic, dangerous situations, how would we know to avoid them in the future? However, obsessively remembering traumatic events to avoid them in the future is much more evolutionarily sound.

Now this is not to say that people can’t recall “repressed memories”. But there’s a reason I’ve put “memories” in quotation marks. They’re not real memories but constructs, potentially very realistic ones, created according to the expectations of the person doing the recall, and often influenced by the suggestions of the person “helping” with the “recall”, for example, a hypnotist. Such a “helper” often doesn’t need to be aware of what he’s suggesting to the person being “helped”. He simply asks the right kinds of leading question, using certain words and avoiding others. The “helped” person, often in a state of high susceptibility to suggestion and heightened imagination, will easily accept these subtle cues and create just the right kind of “repressed” story about satanic sacrifice, alien abduction or childhood abuse.

This is not to say that childhood abuse doesn’t happen (alien abductions and satanic child sacrafice probably don’t happen, though). Childhood abuse does, unfortunately, happen, but the victims tend to have problems forgetting their experiences, not remembering them. In fact, most trauma victims would pay a lot to be able to forget, but the human brain just doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t repress memories which aren’t pleasant; it concentrates on them, because that’s what increases our chances of survival.

So don’t count on some of your memories being repressed and hypnosis or some other magic technique helping you to recall them. Nor, since we’re talking about it, that hypnosis will let you forget a memory you’d wish was gone. It’d be nice and all, but it just doesn’t work that way.

Now removing the problematic emotions from a memory, dissociating from it, that’s another thing, and there are methods, such as IEMT, which work wonders here. But “no longer caring” is different from “forgetting”.

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