Scientists and Practitioners Don’t See Eye to Eye on Repressed Memory

Skepticism about repressed traumatic memories has increased over time, but new research shows that psychology researchers and practitioners still tend to hold different beliefs about whether such memories occur and whether they can be accurately retrieved.

The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“Whether repressed memories are accurate or not, and whether they should be pursued by therapists, or not, is probably the single most practically important topic in clinical psychology since the days of Freud and the hypnotists who came before him,” says researcher Lawrence Patihis of the University of California, Irvine.

According to Patihis, the new findings suggest that there remains a “serious split in the field of psychology in beliefs about how memory works.”

Controversy surrounding repressed memory – sometimes referred to as the “memory wars” – came to a head in the 1990s. While some believed that traumatic memories could be repressed for years only to be recovered later in therapy, others questioned the concept, noting that lack of scientific evidence in support of repressed memory.

Spurred by impressions that both researchers and clinicians believed the debate had been resolved, Patihis and colleagues wanted to investigate whether and how beliefs about memory may have changed since the 1990s.

To find out, the researchers recruited practicing clinicians and psychotherapists, research psychologists, and alternative therapists to complete an online survey.

The data revealed that mainstream psychotherapists and clinical psychologists are more skeptical about recovered memories and more cautious about trying to recover repressed memories than they were 20 years ago.

But, there was still a clear gap between clinicians and researchers: Roughly 60-80% of clinicians, psychoanalysts, and therapists surveyed agreed to some extent that traumatic memories are often repressed and can be retrieved in therapy, compared to less than 30% of research-oriented psychologists.

Additional data revealed that belief in repressed memory is still prevalent among the general public.

This marked divide, with researchers on the one hand and clinicians and the public on the other, is worrying because of the implications it has for clinical practice and for the judicial system:

“Therapists who believe that traumatic memories can be repressed may develop treatment plans that differ dramatically from those developed by practitioners who do not hold this belief. In the courtroom, beliefs about memory often determine whether repressed-memory testimony is admitted into evidence,” the researchers write.

Patihis and colleagues propose that tailoring the education of the next generation of researchers and practitioners may be an effective way to narrow the gap.

“Broader dissemination of basic and applied memory research within graduate programs in clinical psychology and training programs in other mental-health professions may be a helpful step, although research will be needed to determine the effectiveness of this approach for narrowing the research-practice gap,” the researchers conclude.


I was shocked when reading the information on repressed memory. I had this experience. Remembered something until I was about 6 and forgot it until I was 20. I asked my mom and she confirmed it did happen, it was traumatic and involved abuse by a doctor. I’m shocked that there could be a question of this is real or not. I assumed it was because of my experience. I blocked that memory, had lots of issues including eating disorders and after therapy, the memory came back to me all at once while I was laying in bed one night. My mom confirmed it did happen.

I would ask how the memory was retrieved. Did it come after therapy, group therapy, hypnosis, or the use of drugs to facilitate?

The article might have discounted repressed memories but it does uphold recovered memories like your own. I think the article was trying to disseminate between how “repressed” memories are uncovered and the validity of each. Spontaneous occurrence of recovered memory like in your instance is supported by scientific research but like stated in the article patients of psychotherapists and alike that they should be wary of repressed memories because there is a greater chance of memory implantation or a false memory.

Is this going towork?

Memory is a tricky thing. I have to agree that while we may (I hate to use the controversial term) repress the memories of trauma, what we retrieve later in life is not 100% accurate as no memory can be. The emotions are real, but the memory of the event cannot be pure because life has colored it. I too have experienced this phenomenon. My memories of severe childhood trauma began to surface at the age of 29 on their own. I was not seeing a therapist at the time. I just began to have horrendous flashbacks happen of things I didn’t understand suddenly and they would occur without warning anytime or place. I thought I was going crazy. I did know I had been sexually abused until I was fifteen, but what I was seeing in these flashbacks was bizarre. I hadn’t hard of the memory wars at that time. I went to see my first therapist because I wanted to find out if I was nuts. After listening to me and observing me for several months she gave me the controversial diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder. So, I am interested very much in this debate. I try to keep an open mind and read all the research papers I can from open access. My question is this, why are there no published papers by the false memory syndrome foundation proving unequivocally that false memory is a reality for all “repressed” or lost memories? Why aren’t all researchers, including those who claim to believe in false memory syndrome, looking at both sides of the debate without passion and in a scientific manner? Anyway, I found this article to be very informative. Thank you.

Dissociative identity disorder as a category grew only after Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) was discredited.

The problem I have with clinicians, psychoanalysts, psychologists, etc… being skeptical about repressed memories is that it can be mistaken for or could lead to gaslighting especially for the older generation who survived traumatic and tragic physical or sexual abuse, events like the Holocaust, wars they fought in, being witness to a murder or death of a loved one.

My Trauma has haunted me too long and meds only suppress the pain.

I think I have repressed memory. I was in 4th grade, and I remember waking up on the schoolyard playground. There was a very large field and track that surrounded the play structure. I wasn’t far from the play area, face in the grass. I didn’t wake up with pain, I knew who I was, but I didn’t know what day it was or what year, or where I was supposed to be. I knew where the nurse was, so after looking at myself to make sure I wasn’t hurt. I walked to the office, and the nurses didn’t believe me, and sent me to class. I didn’t remember which teach I had, so they had to tell me. For whatever reason that wasn’t weird to them.

I remember being in class unable to focus, and going home. But for whatever reason…that day changed me. I think I hit my head, kids where mean to me back then, but I truly don’t remember anything before waking up in the grass. My parents don’t take it seriously, and I wonder if I should meet with someone. Who even deals with questions about lost memory?

Thank you for reading <3

Food for thought

The Memory Mirage: False Memories

So the reason many researchers dismiss the idea of repressed memory is because of how memory works. An event occurs, it is stored as short term memory. It is encoded for short term memory into long term memory. This happens in the hippocampus.

Now if the argument is that an event is so traumatic that you repress it, that fear or pain or shock overloads the system, it is extremely unlikely that your brain will be able to take this memory out of short term and place it into long term memory.

We can, however, forget things after theyve been encoded to long term memory and remember them later, or perhaps not understand what was happening at the time because we didn’t have the context, or perhaps bits of things are encoded to long term memory; emotions, colors, sounds, lights, and as we recall those, we fill in the res, creating the entire* memory.

But to just blanketly state that not only do we repress memories at the time of the event, but can then recall them later goes against most of what we have learned about how the brain works. That’s why the clinicians and the researchers look askance at this idea and those practicing the softer science (not saying lesser, just to be clear), don’t.

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