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Repressed Memory

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Biology 202
2002 Third Paper
On Serendip

Repressed Memory

Kathryn Fong

If someone asks me, "Where were you on September 11, 2001?" I would be able to give that person an accurate answer. It seems impossible to ever forget the events of that day. How could one forget such a traumatic day? It seems like life changing events would stay with a person forever. However, there are many victims of, let's say, child abuse that cannot remember the actual abuse. The memories of such horrors have been erased so there is no recollection of the events. Being a skeptic, I am not sure if I would be able to forget such horrific events. Repressed memories can also be recovered, through therapeutic treatment. It seems odd how people can forget certain traumas, but still able to remember others. How does memory actually work, and how can one selectively repress certain memories?

Memory and the I-function seem to be closely related. Memory allows individuals to store and retrieve information gained from previous experience. It can then be used to predict human response to certain stimuli. Optic neurons often "make things up as it goes along". The I-function relies on memory in order to do this. Memory is used to perform tasks such as comprehension and production of language, reasoning, and recognition of declarative. Memory is also necessary for skill acquisition. Different models of memory have been proposed. One is that there is a limited capacity for the amount of information that can be stored. Memory can decay, and the longer a memory has been stored and not used, the less available it will be. As new information enters the memory, it may be harder to access other information and cognitive system seems to be less efficient (2).

Memory consists of three basic functions: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Encoding is the actual formation of memory. It is an active process which screens out certain materials, and allowing only selective material to be encoded. It is thought that all materials are registered, but only certain ones are retained in memory (3). The more distracting and useless messages are screened out. The encoding of the memory can be affected by how much attention is devoted to the message. Encoding can be done at three different levels. The first is the structural level of encoding, which focuses most on the physical characteristics and structures. This is the shallowest level of encoding. The second is phonetic encoding, which focuses more on words and the sounds of words. The third, and deepest level, is semantic encoding, which emphasizes the meaning of the message. Encoding works in association with other processes. It is part of elaboration, or associating the message with other information. It also works with vision and visual stimuli. Visual images can add more depth on what is being remembered. Memory is also self-referent, which allows the individual to decide how the material is relevant to his or her life. This message that has been encoded is called an engram, which will lie dormant until it is retrieved (4).

After the memory is formed, it must be retained and stored. There are three stages to memory storage: sensory storage, short-term storage, and long-term storage. Sensory storage is allows the individual to store the sensory image for a short duration of time, a couple of seconds, just enough time to gain perception of the image. Short-term memory can last for about 20-30 seconds, without rehearsal of the information, for example, remembering a phone number after looking at it. It is a working memory as long as the rehearsal of the information is continued, and the short term memory can be maintained. There is limited amount of storage space for short-term memory, and to increase capacity, information can be blended together. Short-term memory can be lost by simple decay and displacement. Long-term memory is thought to be permanent. Long term memories are not forgotten; only the mode of retrieval is lost. This can be seen with flashbulb memories, when a vivid recollection of a certain event can be remembered. It is also seen with hypnotic aided, or recovery of memory, when a certain memory can be unearthed with the aid of therapy. However, because the memories are never 100% accurate, it is possible that long-term memory is in fact not permanent. Information from the short-term memory can be shifted into long-term memory. This can be done with repetitive rehearsal of the information or with the significance of the information that is being rehearsed. If the information is important enough, it can shift from short-term to long-term memory (4).

Once memories are stored, they need to be retrieved at appropriate times. Memory retrieval is a process that relies on the cues and stimuli from the environment. Usually it is helpful for the individual to be in the same context as he or she was when the memory was formed in order to retrieve it. The original mood that the individual was in may also help in retrieval of the memory. Sometimes memory retrieval may be inaccurate because the memories can be misconstrued in the mind (1).

The physiological mechanisms of memory are still being discovered. It is thought that the memory process depends on "synaptic tagging" or "late heterosynaptic reinforcement", which describes the interaction between synaptic inputs to a neuron. When the brain forms a memory, it is strengthening the neurons that participate when encoding for the memory. The different changes at the synapse and their interaction with the neurotransmitters account for different memories. Patients with Alzheimer's disease are shown to have a depletion of the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and glutamate (5). When a person forgets something, the connection between the neuronal networks has been lost (4).

Memory can also depend on the coordinated expression and the specific regulation of certain genes. Different genes encode for different proteins. The encoding of the different proteins is important for the formation, modulation, and plasticity of the synapse. The connection between genetics and memory is still not completely understood, and research is being done for better understanding (5).

Memory is a very complex mechanism, which is not always accurate. That is why it is difficult to rely on the words of different eye witnesses of the same crime. Usually, each different witness remembers something different. The mind is capable of repressing memory as well. The mind is able to subconsciously forget a certain event, usually traumatic events, as a defense mechanism. These repressed memories can be recovered; however, there is much controversy behind that. Many argue that recovered memories are not always accurate (1).

Memory repression is done through a dissociation process. The dissociation process is an active process which causes the conscious and subconscious to split in the active experience. The active experience is like the I-function, it is the neural structure that operates all internal and external sensory inputs, and regulates behavior, learned processes, and memory. Dissociation can be done both automatically and voluntarily. One can automatically repress noise or sound. For example, when one is reading and concentrating, he or she is able to not hear the noise in the background. One can also voluntarily repress a thought or memory. One can avoid thinking about a certain memory or message. It is still in the memory, but the dissociation process keeps it from going into the consciousness, and remains in the subconscious (7).

The memories that are repressed can be recovered, though there is much controversy in that. This is because many patients who go through repressed memory therapy also end up with False Memory Syndrome. This is when the patient remembers something that did not even happen. A false image is planted into the mind, and is accepted as truth. However, there are positive results of repressed memory therapy. It allows the person to recover and face the pressed memories, whatever they may be. This is believed that it is the only way a healthy psychological state can be obtained (6).

Repressed memory therapy can be done using different techniques, some in combination with others. These techniques include hypnosis, group therapy, visualization, dream work, and suggestion by the therapist. These techniques help patients remember the traumatic events. One of the controversial issues with repressed memory therapy is concluding that any abuse has in fact been done. It is the therapist who decides whether any abuse, or other traumatic events, has actually occurred, and their decisions are not always accurate. This is how false memories are planted. All the techniques listed above essentially put the patient back to the time of when the abuse happens, or when the therapist believed that is happened, and allows the patient to relive the trauma (6).

The reliability of the recovered memory is still uncertain. Sometimes, the patient may combine pieces of dreams and reality together to fabricate an image is accepted as a truth. Often, in group therapy, patients experience communal reinforcement of delusion. People in groups often encourage the fabrication of outrageous stories. Groups nourish the birth of fantasies that are farfetched. Therapists also encourage patients to talk extensively about their childhood, background, etc to try to make conclusions of abuse. Patients are often praised for it, and if a patient is hesitant, the therapist may conclude that the patient is in denial, or needs more recovery therapy. Furthermore, some memories are forgotten not because they are repressed, but because either the person was rendered unconscious during the trauma, the brain was damaged due to the trauma, or the person was too young to remember the trauma (6).

As mentioned before, even if memories are repressed, it may not be intentional. Some people choose to deliberately forget some traumatic experience. Memories can be forgotten due to a weak neural connection that was formed during the time of the experience or the brain did not encode for the memory (6). However, it can consciously be forgotten as well. Earlier, it was said that memories are able to decay and replaced. If a person chooses to forget a certain memory, he or she can just stop thinking about it. With time, the memory will fade and be replaced with other memories (2).

The idea of memory repression makes us review the idea of I-function. The I-function is based on experience, good or bad. Some of the actions of the nervous system are based largely on the I-function. So when someone has repressed memories, does that mean that the I-function is defective, or is there something even higher than the I-function that controls memory? This also makes me think about the control that we have over our thoughts and mind. I would like to think that I have total control of my mind, but the idea of unconsciously repressing memories makes me uneasy. How does the brain know which memories should be repressed? Is repressing more detrimental than actually remembering them? Being able to face traumatic experiences, and move on seems healthier than repressing them. I do not quite fully understand why the brain would repress memories in order to protect the person. The mind is a web of mysteries, and memory repression is just on thread of the web.



1) Elizabeth Loftus

2) About Memory

3) Mechanim of Memory

4) Encoding memory

5) 6)Skeptic's Dictionary

7) Process Healing



Comments made prior to 2007
Hello I have been doing an investigation into my past memories and found alot of my memories to be true and sometimes worse. I found that mine revolve around a cult that had kidnapped me as a new born. I later ran away when a man who was said to be my dad told me my true name and who my real dad is he disappeared shortly after that. and now that Ihave discovered the truth I am being threatened and told to be quite. so if my memories are false then why am I being threatened ... Billiejo Bondurant, 18 April 2006


Anon's picture

What Melanie said was

What Melanie said was uncalled for.

I have known several people who have been abused, and some of them (not all) have claimed that their life
was so shitty that no one would understand and it couldn't get any worse. When
I'd try bringing up something that happened to me, they'd be like "Oh yeah? That's nothing. You should hear what happened to me."
When it comes down to it, who the fuck is anyone to lord their own traumas over anybody else's? Does it really matter that much? I know that supposedly what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but does it always? Sometimes it makes you all the more insecure and whiny, especially if you've never dealt with it properly. Trauma and abuse is nothing to brag about and make into a "let's all sit around and get butt-hurt over the past" competition. What you go through should not define who you are. What should truly define your character is how you chuck what life throws at you, whatever it may be. Abuse, death, divorce, poverty...whatever. And no, it really shouldn't be so important whether what you went through was tougher or easier than the next person. It's pointless arguing over. If you need help, get it. If you don't want to get it, that's on you. No one else.

And Nixx, I agree. People are over here bitching about their childhoods when they are already over while people in third world countries are still going through hell. It's a bunch of bull. The only reason people get in stupid little competitions over their hard knock lives is because they still live there; in the past. Move and and grow up. Enough said.

Serendip Visitor's picture

repressed memories

Many people go through traumatic events and there are several ways to deal with them, all depending on the individuals chemical make up. Memoeries change how we think and feel about situations but there is also a chemical change in certain parts of the brain that control our reactions. Some people take on the characteristics of the person responsible for their trauma, while others may completely forget it ever happened. Those who take on the characteristcs would be the kind of people say a man who was abused by his father his whole life abusing his son. It is what he knew his whole life and as a father is supposed to be a role model he thinks it is how he is supposed to behave. On the other hand a rape victim may deny that the event actually happened until her mind truly believes it never did. Another post menisoned 'trauma envy' if this were a real thing it wouldn't be someone trivializing the traumas in other's lives, it would be someone like the rape victim's friend taking the memories of the rape as her own and becoming the victim. Or say an individual finding out someone they know has a form of cancer and within weeks telling people that the doctors think they may have cancer. The original topic is memory repression those who's minds can not handle the event repress them. They may never realize that the events actually happened after the fact. However, there is still a change in the brain and it can effect them for the rest of their lives. Something small may send them in to a rage to protect themself against a precieved threat. In studies those who vocalize their trauma outside of a group specifically designed for coping are looking for sympathy. In a support group setting the goal is for people to train their minds to understand that they can not change what happened to them but it is not their fault and should not define their life. Inividuals who repress their memories although unaware of the trauma should seek counceling for unacceptable behaviors that they obtain as a result of the unknown trauma. Respression is not a way of healing and discussing repression is not a way to trivialize traumatic events. So when people get mad about what has been written and post harsh and often inaccurate accusations about the topic, it shows that they do not suffer from memory repression and further more have not properly delt with what they went through. There are so many programs out there to help those who suffer from traumatic events so there really is no excuse to continue socially unacceptable behaviors by publicly accusing those of things they are not guilty. Seeking help will enable those who have been through traumatic events to handle the situations in a socially acceptable way. Taking your anger about the events in your life out on others only shows the instability that you still suffer from and makes it clear that you have not delt with the problems properly. Please seek help. Only you can change the way you see the world for the better and only you can be held responsible for your continued suffering.

Anonymous's picture

Easy for you to say!

Wow, I could'nt get past the first paragraph. Hmmmm, 9/11 yes, I remember where I was too, but if you ask me where I was when my father strangled me, well, it took me 30 years to remember. I don't think it takes a genius to understand that reading or watching the news about someone else's trauma isn't the same thing as being a vulnerable child and having the closest person to you, your caretaker, almost kill you. It is too much! Too traumatic! A matter of your own life and death. Either repress the memory or take your own life, go insane. Because as a child you realize you cannot escape your parents, you don't know how to survive on your own. Repressed memory is a survival mechanism people. And for the skeptics with sunnier childhoods, my response is you have NO right to be skeptical because you have NO clue what it is like to be the victim of abuse.

melanie's picture

how do you know

how do you know they didnt go through abuse did you ask them did you go in their head and see. you think the only one who went through abuse because your not. wow you were strangled. try living the life of being molested my your brother and your father. not being able to be in a relationship because of the thoughts of what some stupid men did.

Anonymous's picture

Lots of people were abused

Lots of people were abused as a child, I think it's immature to compare your experiances with others claiming to have suffered more than someone else, this kind of thing should not be a competition.

Dino's picture

Immature Anonymous

Anonymous said
"Lots of people were abused as a child, I think it's immature to compare your experiances with others claiming to have suffered more than someone else, this kind of thing should not be a competition."

Well anonymous, I have known people like you before. When someone tells you about a humiliating experience from their past, you jump to the twisted conclusion that they are actually bragging. Your fragile ego leads you to imagine that they think they are superior to you because they overcame their hardship. So you attack them and try to trivialize their experience. And then, ironically, you acuse THEM of making it into a competition. If there were a psychological term for what you have, it would be "Trauma Envy". You should see somebody about it.

Nixx's picture


I don't think Anonymous was refering to envy. I think they were talking about this forum, and how these people are trying to act like their trials were the worst out of everyone elses. I was abused as a child hard. My dad was mentally unstable and used to take it out on me. And believe me it goes deeper than that, but I dont want to make this a competition, because its not about what you went through, its how you deal with it. And honestly I have a lot of issues, which im sure everyone on here does. But honestly look at your life now, and look at people suffering in third world countries wondering if they can find some clean water to drink, or if they're going to get food for that day,try making this a competition then. Honestly, psychologically I went through a lot but, my suffering is over. But for third world countries, their suffering never ends. They have no education, no good clothing if they have clothing, no tv, and shitty water, and disgusting food. And the homes are worthless. And we all want to complain about our issues? Im not trying to be a charity commercial, Im just saying sometimes you have put others before yourself, and realize that its not so bad.