The concept of ‘repressed memories’ is one of the few ideas from psychology that have become ‘mainstream’ enough that they are a part of our day-to-day vocabulary. Many people know what a repressed memory is, even if they have no experience with psychology and no direct experience with the phenomenon themselves.
So why is this?
Partly, it comes down to the fact that repressed memories are particularly interesting concepts that can be quite surprising when you first learn about them. And what’s more, is that repressed memories are something that have been used in numerous high-profile court cases as witnesses remember events that happened years before.
But is it really possible to forget a traumatic experience like this? What is the science behind the theory? Read on and we’ll assess the feasibility of repression and whether or not it has any neurological basis.
The Theory of Repressed Memories
The theory behind repressed memories comes from psychodynamic psychology – the school of psychology that was born out of Freud’s teachings.
Freud believed that the psyche could be split into three distinct entities. These are the ‘id’, the ‘ego’ and the ‘superego’. The ego is the conscious part of the brain that contains our personality and our memories and it is what we consider to be ‘us’. But meanwhile, a lot more activity occurs ‘under the surface’ that even we are not aware of. For instance, we have the ‘Id’, which is responsible for our baser impulses and our animalistic nature. This is what drives us to fulfil our most basic physiological needs and the part of us that harbors dark thoughts that would be unacceptable to modern society. Meanwhile, the superego is the part of the brain that keeps the id in check. This is our most moral and most anxious self, that tells us to clean up after ourselves and that worries what other people think. A healthy balance between the id and superego is what ultimately allows us to go about our business.
The ego is a fragile thing then and thus any thoughts, impulses or experiences that might be deemed unacceptable or too horrific will be repressed so as to help keep us sane. But the same is also true of certain memories – if something truly scarring happens to us, then it can become repressed in order to protect our superego and help us to continue as normal without that memory slowing us down or leaving us in a constant state of shock and disgust.
Freud believed that if something truly traumatic happened then, the brain would often remove all memory of it – but that it could carry on causing unhealthy behaviors and anxiety disorders by making itself known in other ways. For instance, a repressed memory might manifest as a phobia, or as OCD behavior – and it’s only by facing the memory that the patient can get over it.
Repression is an example of an ‘ego defence mechanism’, with others including denial, sublimation and projection.
Is Repression Real?
The problem with this theory though, is that it isn’t based on any of the more widely accepted theories of the human mind and has no obvious neurological basis. Many of Freud’s theories have lost mainstream acceptance in psychology as newer approaches have proven to be more falsifiable and more useful in a clinical setting. Meanwhile, brain imaging techniques and other methods have allowed us a closer look into the inner workings of the mind.
Like much of Freud’s work, the subjective nature of repression makes it nearly impossible to prove or disprove in a laboratory setting. This alone raises something of a ‘red flag’ however, as generally the scientific community will always prefer theories that can be proven or disproven in one way or another.
Another problem with repression is that it doesn’t align with what we know about the brain. In fact, stressful events will generally be remembered much more clearly than non-stressful events. This is because the brain will release neurotransmitters such as dopamine, cortisol and norepinephrine and all of these encourage stronger neural connections. From an evolutionary psychology perspective this makes more sense too – if you encounter something highly dangerous or unpleasant, then the brain needs to make a very strong and clear memory of that so as to help you avoid getting into the same situation again in future.
This is what gives rise to ‘flash bulb memories’ – memories of very important (sometimes stressful) events that you can remember in precise detail (1). This is also one potential mechanism for post-traumatic stress disorder.
But perhaps the biggest question mark over repression is the simple fact that there are plenty of well-documented cases where it doesn’t occur. The fact is that most victims of violent crimes and most ex-military personnel do not repress traumatic events. If repression is such a common and normal process, the question then arises: why doesn’t everyone experience it?
Conclusions and Implications
None of this completely disproves Freud’s theory and it is still certainly possible that there is some underlying mechanism for repression that we don’t yet full understand and aren’t aware of. Flashbulb memories show that highly emotional charged situations can impact on the formation of memories and this in turn means it’s possible that a certain neurochemical cocktail could result in a memory being harder to remember. It’s also very possible that if the individual is in shock during certain events, they might not form the memory in the normal manner to begin with.
But the bottom line is that right now, repression is not widely accepted by the psychological community. Thus, we should certainly be very careful when accepting repressed and recently-discovered memories as evidence in a court of law. This is especially true when you consider that the brain is incredibly adept at ‘creating’ new memories entirely from scratch when pushed in the right direction.