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Biology 202, Spring 2005 Second Web Papers On Serendip

Remembering Repressed Memories

Patrick Wetherille

If you've paid any attention to popular media in the United States recently, you're probably familiar with the attention given to adults who report being sexually abused as children. Even famous stars like Rosanne Arnold and former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur have come forward to discuss their stories of abuse (1). This recognition of such an ugly problem our society faces is certainly a step in the right direction towards eliminating sexual abuse of children. However, what is less discussed is the method that is used to extract evidence that supports claims of sexual abuse. While many cases are well built upon corroborated accounts of the abused individual, some have gone to trial based solely upon "recovered" or "repressed" memories. In recent years, much work has been done to understand the nature of these memories and the processes used to extract them from victims of sexual abuse. We shall investigate repressed memories by looking at how traditional therapy has been criticized in its approach to accessing repressed memories and how these criticisms can be interpreted through a scientific understanding of memory. Before we can begin to answer these questions however, we must first explore what science can tell us about memory.

Modern scientific theory describes the memory as located in the temperal lobe, the diencephalon, and the frontal lobes of the brain (2). Within the temperal lobe, the hippocampus and amygdala are concerned with taking in new information that is part of short-term memory and transferring it to long-term memory. The dichotomy of short and long-term memory was first explored by William James in 1890 and remains a critical part of today's understanding of how memories work (3). The neocortex is used to recall information from the long-term memory (2) for use by a person's "I-function". (NOTE: The I-function is a term to describe one's own conscious stream of thought, without having to go into neurobiological theory of where the consciousness itself exists.) Far from being completely understood, evidence suggests that memories are not located in one particular place, but rather they are broken down as elements and spread out in different regions of the brain.

When a long-term memory is accessed, it is not brought forth to the I-function from one specific location, but rather from several places, compiled of various elements that are relevant to the memory. This process of coordination of various elements is facilitated by the hippocampus (4). The hippocampus, the temperal lobes, and the connected structures of the limbic system all work together in accessing long term memories. Information starts in the hippocampus, flowing to the hypothalamus's mammillary bodies, the anterior thalamic nucleus, the cingulate cortex, and the entorhinal cortex, then travels back to the hippocampus. This circular flow of information is what makes all the elements of long-term memory accessible for use by the I-function of the brain. The 'circuit' that this flow of information makes then has the ability to change the brain itself, making the associations of the relevant elements stronger. This is why repetition allows you to remember things better: the brain is physically linking the elements closer together so that the next time the memory is accessed, it brings the relevant elements together with more ease (4).

Repression is a theme that psychologists have wrestled with for years. Sigmund Freud's famous theory of sublimation of repressed urges is an example of how repression is seen to be part of human behavior in society (5). Traditionally, psychotherapy has encouraged the study of the repressed, often focusing on wants and desires. Hypnosis has been seen as a way to access those repressions, however, as childhood memories of trauma were seen to be the object of repression, attention to the effect hypnosis has on the patient has been overlooked. The idea that any technique to help the patient get their memories out was not seen as problematic and in fact seemed to be a helpful for victims. A doctrine was adopted by some therapists of helping a patient work through their problem by any means necessary, regardless of what it entailed (6). However, based upon what we know about the function of memories in the brain, it seems all too obvious that such an approach endangers the accuracy of the memory if the wrong information is used to fill in the blanks in someone's memory. If a therapist is not careful to remain neutral in their opinion of whether a patient was abused or not, they can create certain presuppositions that can taint the outcome therapy might have on the patient and even implant false memories of abuse when in fact, there were none.

A quick example of this presupposition in dealing with long-term memories (such as memories of childhood abuse) can be seen in Elizabeth Loftus's "Bugs Bunny" experiment. Dr. Loftus interviewed several subjects, asking them about their childhood experiences at Disneyland. She asked not only if they saw a character dressed up, but also if they "hugged his furry body and stroked his velvety ears (7)." By adding the extra information, Dr. Loftus created a presupposition of a furry body and stroking velvety ears in the subject's recollection of the memory. If we think in terms of the physical function of memory, the hippocampus coordinates all of the relevant elements necessary to the memory, even accessing information relevant to the extra information. "Hugging his furry body" and "stroking his velvety ears" seems to have had the effect of accessing an image of Bugs Bunny, not a Disney character, for several individuals, as 36% recalled seeing a cartoon rabbit when asked what the name of the character was that they saw at Disneyland. Bugs Bunny is of course not a Disney character and therefore any memory of hugging him at Disneyland is almost certainly false (unless some random person happened to show up in a Bugs Bunny suit that day at the park). However, since the description matched a bunny and now a mouse or any other Disney character, their memory adapted to the misinformation and created a false memory. This example shows how memory can be tainted by presuppositions of even the smallest kind.

Scientific analysis of long-term memory has been very critical of so-called repressed memories, as suggestibility under therapy can lead to false memories. In 1992, a church counselor provided therapy to a young woman and helped her remember how her father had raped her between the ages of seven and fourteen (8). The suggestive techniques used by her counselor lead her to develop vivid memories of rape as well as memories of being twice impregnated by her father, only to be forced to abort the fetuses. Her father, a minister, was forced to resign. However, subsequent medical examination concluded that the 22 year old not only had never been pregnant, but was also still a virgin. This example of false memory implantation is representative of the misunderstanding many therapists have with the accuracy of long-term memory and the impact suggestibility can have on forming those memories. Hypnosis and other age-regressing techniques that encourage fantasizing, stand the risk of confusing fact for fiction.

It is important to point out that repressed memories can in fact be real. If they can be corroborated with a third party or if the individual has always had some recollection of them (regular access strengthens the association of the elements of a given memory), they are more likely to be true and can support claims of sexual abuse. However, long-term memories can be affected by the aging of the brain, providing an incomplete picture of what really happened. Alzheimer's is this phenomenon in the extreme, but more subtle versions of memory loss could be a function of more subtle changes to the brain. If a memory is not accessed for a very long time, it is unlikely that one will be able to access it as fully as the last time it was accessed. If such a memory is brought forth, it can be hungry to fill in the gaps and any outside influence, be it the media, a therapist, or even a television show, can taint the accuracy of that memory (1).

Hypnosis as a method of retrieving accurate information is not a proven technique, despite its popularity among some therapists. Under controlled circumstances, researchers found that subjects accessing memory through hypnosis do get more questions correct than subjects not under hypnosis. However, they also found that those same subjects get more wrong ones as well (6). This suggests simply that under hypnosis, individuals answer with more confidence in their memory than those who are not under hypnosis. This might explain why hypnosis can have a perverse effect on the memories of people who think they might have been abused as children. Increasing confidence in one's memory does absolutely no good if that confidence is not proportional to an increase in accuracy.

A case in point of this is Dr. Loftus's "shopping mall" experiment, in which she tries to get people to remember a time that they were lost in a shopping mall as a child, when if fact they were not. Specifically, she asks them about how they cried, an elderly woman comforted them, and then they were reunited them with their family. This false story is included with three other true stories for each subject, with information corroborated by close relatives of the subjects who confirmed that individual was never lost in a shopping mall as a child. The subjects knew the stories were written by relatives, but not told that the shopping mall one was false. The true events were remembered by 68% of the test group, while 25% claimed remembering the false one (8). 25% is a significant figure of subjects who remember in detail an event that never happened.

As those 25% tried to remember, the new information was taken in by the hippocampus and amygdala. It remained short-term memory for a little while and the confidence with which the subjects remembered the false story stayed at zero. They denied remembering it for the first interview and some warmed up to it during the second interview. However, it was not until the third interview that 25% reported remembering it with great confidence. For these subjects, the information was stored in the long-term memory and combined with information from other true experiences to make the story real for them. The detail they described in remembering the story was false for the shopping mall context, but much of it was true in the context of other childhood stories. This shows how implantation of a false memory can occur when there is a level of suggestibility involved and how the brain uses other information to make it real to the individual remembering.

If there are gaps in memory, the brain has a way of filling in the missing details (9). Just as a third of individuals in Loftus's experiment recall seeing Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, brains tend to create the fullest picture possible given the information available. However, this information is not always accurate. Hypnosis and other regression techniques can in fact be responsible for the implantation of false memories if therapists are not sensitive to the high suggestibility of persons in a hypnotic state. Presuppositions of sexual abuse can lead an individual's brain to filling in the missing data using whatever tools are available, including images from fantasy or dreams. Encouragement to let one's brain run wild with fantasy can be a mistake if that fantasy can blur the lines between real memories and fantasized ones (6).

In starting this work, I myself was skeptical of those who claim that false memories can easily be implanted in individuals. I had full faith that if a memory was uncovered during therapy, it was in fact "uncovered" and not fabricated. After all, why would those who devote their lives to helping people deal with emotional trauma damage someone's life by implanting a false memory? I've discovered that it's not the intention of therapists to implant such memories. Rather, it is a devotion to the psychiatric methods they have come to know that blinds them to the effect regression techniques can have on memories.

The mind seems to have more control over our experience of reality than anyone would wish to admit. Knowing that memories can easily be confused, twisted, or fabricated by something that is as seemingly harmless as a fantasy is frightening to anyone who believes in free will. While there is more about the mind that needs to be explored, it is important for individuals confronted with the possibility of being a victim of child abuse to remain skeptical of methods of regression that carry presuppositions with it. There seems to be a line to walk in this approach to regression therapy: while it may be necessary for a certain word or image to trigger a memory that has been suppressed, it is dangerous to suggest too much. Understanding how the brain interprets information and draws upon a number of sources when it permits you to remember is a vital step in avoiding drastic conclusions based upon false memories.


1) Loftus, Elizabeth & Ketcham, Katherine. The Myth of Repressed Memory. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994. pp 79-89.

2) Kingshill Research Center, a basic site for the anatomy of memory.

3) Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a lecture by a professor on the history of inquiry into memory.

4) Magill University, a more in depth resource on the function of memory in the brain.

5) Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: Norton, 1961. pp 51-52

6) Ofshe, Richard & Watters, Ethan. Making Monsters. New York: Scribners, 1994. pp 142-43

7) CNN, Feb 16, 2003, an article on the implanting of false memories.

8) Scientific American, September 1997, an article by Elizabeth Loftus on false memory.

9) Dr. Craig Stark, Johns Hopkins University, NPR interview, February 4, 2005.

10) PBS interactive anatomy of the brain

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