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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The "Myth" of Repressed Memory

I was perusing the Skeptical Inquirer the other day, where it reported on Elizabeth Loftus' having received an award for defending her work on the creation of false memories. I took the occasion to write the following to the editor:

I was reading your coverage of Elizabeth Loftus's recent award for demonstrating the malleability of memory. She certainly deserves recognition for the courage with which she defended her findings and testified to their relevance in many legal cases.

That said, it's problematic that so many skeptics seem willing only to acknowledge the alterability of memory in the direction of its artificial creation, and not its intentional suppression.

For several years I remembered the following: at age 12 I became curious about my family's past, so my mother showed me where some old documents were. One of these was my father's curriculum vitae. Suddenly, midway through reading it, I said loudly, "Why are you wasting your time looking at all these stupid old papers? You have more important things to do with your time!" I hastily put them away and left the room. Even as I did so, I realized my behavior was strange, but I didn't look back.

When I was seventeen, my mother told me something I hadn't known: she'd had another husband before my father, named Harold Diamond. Almost immediately I felt that something seemed familiar about that surname, but I couldn't place it. Within a few years, the whole name also seemed familiar, but I still didn't know why. Finally, while again pondering it, I saw the printed words in my mind's eye: "Married Alma Diamond in 1951." And immediately remembered where I'd seen them: in my father's c.v.! Now I recalled the split second that had been missing before: seeing that sentence and immediately averting my eyes and chiding myself on "wasting my time." A little later I visited my mother and asked to look at the c.v. again. There the sentence was, just as I remembered.

My brother, similarly, has over the years recalled several incidents he'd forgotten, clearly not because they were insignificant but because of how significant, in a disturbing way, they were. (He recently wrote about one of these on his blog.) To the best of my knowledge all of his repressed memories, like mine, were recovered without the use of hypnosis, and in at least one case his memory, like mine, received some independent verification.

Can I, in a scientifically rigorous sense, prove that the above is a true account of the history of my memory? Probably not, since life isn't a controlled experiment. I can only attest — and will solemnly affirm, on a stack of Skeptical Inquirers if you like — that had anyone asked me, between the ages of 12 and 17, whether my parents had previously been married, I would have answered in all sincerity, "No, not to my knowledge." And there is, after all, no reason to regard this as any less plausible, a priori, than the creation of false memories. It's just harder, for practical and ethical reasons, to demonstrate in a laboratory.

Now, there may be some specialist sense in which these memories don't meet some technical definition of "repression." But I'm pretty darn sure they are exactly what the average person in the street thinks of when te hears that phrase. So to have a book titled The Myth of Repressed Memory, without the author even making some sort of cavil about it when giving speeches or interviews, is very problematic. When the term "myth" is being applied to something that millions of people have firsthand experience with, I suspect the effect is not so much to discredit false memories, as to discredit the skeptics who are trying to make people aware of this issue.
Years ago the Skeptical Inquirer bore this cover line: "Hypnosis Is Not a Truth Serum." This is quite true and of great importance where abuse allegations are concerned. But from this factual statement, to baselessly calling repressed memories a "myth," is a huge leap of logic — one which consistent skeptics will refrain from.


Anonymous said...

I have had this happen myself. Once I recall the thing, I usually cannot get it out of my head, and I try my hardest to forget about it -- to return to my previous state of blissful ignorance.

stripey7 said...

But did you actually succeed in forgetting? If so, that's repression. Otherwise, it's only wishing for repression. On principle I'd rather not forget, even if the truth is unpleasant. But it was more than I could handle at age 12.