Memory wars: Is there scientific evidence for repressed memories?

A scientific study that investigated whether the “memory wars” among psychologists was at an end appears to have received an answer: it’s not. The “war” has been fought over the Freudian concept of repressed memories, in which traumatic events are unconsciously suppressed in the mind.

The debate over repressed memories peaked in the 1990s, when a number of psychologists claimed to have “recovered” memories of child sexual abuse (CSA) and satanic ritual abuse in their patients — leading to the so-called “satanic panic.”

But the debate on smaller scale is still ongoing. The most recent scientific feud was sparked by research published in the February issue of the journal Psychological Science, titled “Are the ‘Memory Wars’ Over? A Scientist-Practitioner Gap in Beliefs About Repressed Memory.” The study, by Lawrence Patihis and his colleagues, found undergraduate students and psychotherapists had developed increasing levels of skepticism about repressed memory over time.

The researchers also said they found evidence of a “scientist-practitioner gap.”

“Despite this apparent attitudinal change, a large percentage of nonresearchers endorsed the validity of repressed memories, to some degree, and endorsed their therapeutic retrieval,” Patihis and his colleagues explained. “Notably, we found a wide rift between the beliefs of psychologists with a research focus and those of practitioners and nonprofessionals.”

They suggested the gap was due to clinical psychologists valuing their own intuitions and observations over scientific evidence.

“Some clinicians may view highly confident self-reports of memory recovery as prima facie evidence for the accuracy of repressed memories, whereas most researchers presumably view controlled research as required for such an inference,” they wrote.

London researchers Chris R. Brewin and Bernice Andrews, however, argued in a commentary piece published in August that Patihis and his colleagues were wrong to claim there was a scientist-practitioner gap. It was wrong to assume “that repression is an unscientific concept” and that “clinical-psychology practitioners are insufficiently educated about memory research,” they said.

Brewin and Andrews began their criticism of the study by accusing the researchers of failing to account for two different types of repression.

“It has been pointed out many times that from the outset and throughout his writing, Freud adopted two quite different meanings of the term repression, one corresponding to a fully unconscious defense and one corresponding to a conscious defensive strategy. Whereas attempts to find experimental evidence for the unconscious version have been largely unsuccessful, the conscious version of repression corresponds to everyday strategies such as thought avoidance and thought suppression.”

The existence of thought avoidance and thought suppression in mental health disorders has been well established by published research, they said.

“In conclusion, we suggest that the data Patihis et al. reported do not identify an important discrepancy between the views of researchers and clinical psychologists, but rather point to a marked difference between clinical psychologists and alternative practitioners, with only the former showing clear evidence of having adapted their practice in accordance with changes in the evidence base. Given the abundant evidence that events such as death, murder, and sexual assault can sometimes be forgotten, we would like to see future research with a broader focus on plausible cognitive explanations for forgetting of traumatic events.”

But Patihis and his colleagues, in a response to the criticism, insisted their study had differentiated between unconscious repressed memories and the conscious suppression of painful memories.

“We believe that memories, whether of words or even of traumatic events, might not be thought about for a period of time and later remembered, perhaps with a cue,” they wrote in their own commentary. “Our skepticism instead concerns the following scenario: A client enters therapy with psychological symptoms, such as those of depression or an eating disorder, and no memory of being abused, but following extended use of suggestive memory techniques (e.g., hypnosis, guided imagery, leading questions), remembers years of severe trauma. We know of no credible scientific evidence that memory works this way.”

“In conclusion, we stand by our findings given that we adequately defined repressed memory and made clear to participants that we were inquiring about beliefs regarding unconscious blocking of traumatic memories.”