Repressed memory is a hypothetical concept used to describe a significant memory, usually of a traumatic nature, that has become unavailable for recall; also called motivated forgetting in which a subject blocks out painful or traumatic times in one's life. The existence of repressed memories is a controversial topic in psychology.
Experienced clinical psychologists state that the phenomenon of a recovered memory is rare (e.g., one experienced practitioner reported having a recovered memory arise only once in 20 years of practice). Also, although laboratory studies have shown that memory is often inaccurate and can be influenced by outside factors, memory research usually takes place either in a laboratory or some everyday setting.
At the heart of repressed memory cases is a fundamental set of assumptions: That people routinely banish traumatic experiences from consciousness because they are too horrifying to contemplate; that these forgotten experiences cannot be recalled by any normal process but only by special techniques; that these special techniques produce reliable recovery of memory; that before such recovery, these forgotten experiences cause miserable symptoms; that healing is possible only by digging out and reliving the forgotten experiences.
In the presence of severe or prolonged stress, people may suffer significant impairment of the retention, recall, and accuracy of memories. Memories can also be altered as a result of suggestions particularly by a trusted person or authority figure. It is well documented that both dismissing true accounts and accepting false accounts can harm patients and possibly others.
The scenes of recovery therapists are revealing as they listen to their clients, whom they call survivors, dredge up memories of abuse. They seem to confirm the observation of one critic, Dr. Michael Yapko, a clinical psychologist, that the therapists "tend to view problems in terms of a presumed history of abuse." He adds, "And so by looking for abuse, expecting to find abuse, it's no surprise when they uncover abuse."
The notion of repressed memory was floated by Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century. He suggested it occurred when a patient (usually a hysterical female victim of sexual abuse) "intentionally seeks to forget an experience, or forcibly repudiates, inhibits and suppresses" memory. Clinicians argue that repressed memories can be recovered through treatments including hypnosis, age regression, or suggestion therapies, but ... some victims experience spontaneous recovery.
Although most states allow tolling of the statute of limitations in repressed memory cases, parties to a proceeding still need expert testimony to explain both the reason for the delay between the incidence of sexual abuse and the filing of the current claim, as well as the ambiguous nature of Repressed Memory Syndrome. Expert testimony is also needed to legitimize Repressed Memory Syndrome in the minds of the jury.
Proponents claimed that they had identified the root cause of a wide assortment of psychological problems: buried memories of sexual abuse in childhood. The goal of repressed memory therapy was to help adult incest survivors "recover" their repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. Reliving these painful experiences would help them begin "the healing process " of working through their anger and other intense emotions.
Repressed memory therapy hit its peak right in there [from '94 to '97]. False memory therapy, repressed memory was the model, and it exploded during those times. The critics were saying folks had memories that didn't exist. The supporters were saying, "Finally all the people with repressed memory are getting the help they need." It was a cultural phenomenon.
The modus operandi of recovered memory therapy lies in uncovering supposed repressed memories from the client's past in order to cure their mental problems. According to the theory, virtually any mental disorder or symptom can result from repressed childhood abuse.
Poorly trained therapists and therapists who operate under a fixed belief system are at greatest risk for confusing fact and fiction. Through tone of voice, phrasing of questions, and expressions of belief or disbelief, a therapist can unwittingly encourage a patient to accept the emerging "memories" as real, thus reinforcing the patient's delusions or even implanting false memories in the patient's mind.