Memory – Not as Good as We Think

One of the more controversial topics within cognitive psychology is whether or not there are repressed memories and if so, can they accurately be recovered. In order to understand how memories might become repressed, we need to first understand the memory system.

Memory includes both learning and then some sort of recollection. We have to store information first in order to pull it back out of storage later for use. Thus, the process of memory can be affected at either of these two stages — learning or recall. If information is never learned and therefore stored, it can never be remembered. However, if information was learned but something affects the process of retrieving it from storage, then it is possible that with additional help that information could be recalled. This is the basic idea underlying repressed memories. Something was learned and put into storage but a person is not able to retrieve the memories because something is blocking them. Therefore, from what we know of the memory system, repressed memories are technically feasible.

However, there are a number of confounding factors: 1) as best as we know now, memories are not stored in the brain like photographs or audio recordings of events; memories are recreated when they accessed; 2) memory is unreliable; 3) false memories are common.

I’ll briefly address the three possible confounds. What the first implies then is that all the information about a particular memory is stored in the brain and during recall, all this information is assembled to form a memory. Each time something is remembered it is actually recreated. The problem is that each time a memory is recreated it can be changed — dramatically or subtly. This occurs more often than we might think.

This leads into point 2 — memory is unreliable. This is not to say that all memory is unreliable and we should never trust memories but we need to be willing to question the validity of our memory.  Even what we think are strong, solid memories like where we were when we heard JFK was assassinated (if we are old enough to have experienced that) or where and what we were doing when we learned about the events of 9/11. These type of memories are called flashbulb memories. While they can be quite accurate, researchers have shown that they are often affected by news coverage after the fact or discussions with others. Further, how confident people are about these types of memories does not strongly relate to how accurate the memories are. Researchers have shown over and over how easy it is to manipulate memory. Put all this together and we have a relatively unreliable memory system.

This leads into point 3 — false memories are common. Not only can memories be manipulated, they can be created. The great psychologist Jean Piaget was convinced that he had been kidnapped as a child. It was later discovered that this was a story made up by a housekeeper or nanny that he later incorporated as an actual event. False memories have been most controversial in instances of “recovered” childhood sexual abuse. Many instances of childhood sexual abuse are unfortunately real but there have been a number of documented cases where such recovered memories turned out to be false. Just because those memories are false does not mean that someone who has them is lying, although that is the case for some people; however, just because someone believes strongly that a particular even happened, particularly in childhood, does not mean that it actually did. False memories are often strongly emotional. While emotion can help strengthen memories, it also sets them up to potentially be more unreliable because emotions change over time, which changes can affect connected memories.

Are there real repressed memories? Yes, there are. Repressed memories are always linked with traumatic events. Sometimes sufficiently traumatic events can overwhelm a person’s ability to function, such as what happens when someone goes into shock. These strong emotions and associated stress hormones can overwhelm the brain, interfering with the memory system. However, in practical experience, there is little evidence that these types of memories (i.e., those that are repressed) can be reliably recovered years down the road. It has happened, but is extremely rare.

Additional Reading

Loftus, E. F. & Kaufman, L. (1992). Why do traumatic experiences sometimes produce good memory (flashbulbs) and sometimes no memory (repression)? (In E. Winograd & U. Neisser (Eds.), Affect and accuracy in recall: Studies of “flashbulb” memories (pp. 212-223). New York: Cambridge University Press.)

Mendez, M., & Fras, I. (2011). The false memory syndrome: Experimental studies and comparison to confabulations Medical Hypotheses, 76 (4), 492-496 DOI: 10.1016/j.mehy.2010.11.033

Jared Tanner, PhD

Jared Tanner has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in neuropsychology. His interests are mainly neuroimaging and neuroanatomy. He spends his research time looking at the structure of gray and white matter in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. With a focus on neuropsychology, he is also interested in how normal and abnormal brain structure relates to cognitive and behavioral functioning.
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