Repressed Memories – Fact or Fiction?

Repressed memories are one of those things that we don’t have solid proof of existing, yet typically believe to be real without question. There was hardly a media outcry at the presentation of repressed memories in movies like Shutter Island or The Hulk, yet lawsuits involving repressed memories are a minefield, and reportedly, regularly dismissed. With some claims of repressed memories of childhood trauma proving true in the court of law and others not, there is a very real risk of incarcerating innocents or letting abusers roam free. Meanwhile, scientists are fervently comparing the facts to get to the crux of the matter: Are repressed memories fact or fiction?

As found in an article in the American Psychology journal, repressed memories can be considered as:

“… so shocking that the mind grabs hold of the memory and pushes it underground, into some inaccessible corner of the unconscious. There it sleeps for years, or even decades, or even forever isolated from the rest of mental life. Then, one day, it may rise up and emerge into consciousness.”

The idea is that repressed memories are different to suppressed memories. Suppressed memories we have pretty solid proof of, although some of us are better at it than others, which in some scientific circles, as we mentioned in a recent article on how best to control intrusive thoughts, has resulted in these proficient thought controllers being dubbed ‘natural repressors’.

Suppressing a memory involves some form of consciously directed effort – a choice – to attempt to not think about it or not. A bona fide repressed memory on the other hand is often considered to happen without free will in response to traumatic events, or has been buried so deep in our subconscious minds that it can take years for the memory to fully resurface.

Over the past two years, scientists and clinicians have published differing opinions in high-impact journals that are either more in favor of, or more skeptical about, the existence and validity of unconsciously repressed memories. In fact, a scientific inquiry into scientists and clinicians beliefs revealed that those with greater critical-thinking abilities are associated with more skeptical beliefs about repressed memories, both clinicians and scientists.

But this is belief, what about the evidence?

Indeed, supporters of both sides tend to agree that there is no direct empirical evidence as of yet that unconscious memory repression is a real and reliable phenomenon. You see, the problem with investigating the existence of repressed memories is their subjective nature.

There is no real way, at present, to peek inside the minds of those claiming to have had, or indeed claiming to currently have, repressed memories and see what is going on. All we have is their word. Even if there is solid proof of being exposed to traumatic events, humans are pretty susceptible to self-deception, the memory itself may have never been truly repressed and pushed out of the realms of conscious recall.

Circumstantial evidence from victims of trauma

So far, the evidence we have is largely circumstantial and highly-subjective evidence. While some of that evidence comes from sexual abuse victims and genocide survivors on the one hand, other reports of repressed memories come from people claiming to be abducted by aliens, which as you can imagine in the scientific community, doesn’t help matters much.

There is evidence that childhood sexual abuse victims and alien abductees do not tend to be natural repressors (i.e. good at suppression) compared with controls. As one would expect they would be better at suppression, this makes the controversy even more difficult to iron out. Then again, we are presuming that the mechanisms behind suppression, and repression in response to trauma, are similar. Perhaps they are completely unconnected and resultantly, such experiments don’t really serve the question at hand?

There are also multiple lines of evidence to suggest that both groups are characterized by pronounced proneness to form false memories in certain laboratory tasks. One could take this as evidence against both the validity and existence of repressed memories. However, perhaps a proneness to form false memories is a skill that trauma survivors mentally entrained over the years in order to cope better with the traumatic event.

Exploring this concept further, there is a brand new study published in Nature Neuroscience that states that their findings:

“…demonstrate a cortical pattern suppression mechanism through which remembering [i.e. repeatedly retrieving selective memories] adaptively shapes which aspects of our past remain accessible.”

It is reasonable to assume that part of traumatic memory repression involves reinforcing false memories that aid adaptive forgetting of the traumatic event. As you can imagine however, this would not bode well in the courtroom. How can we believe a repressed memory to be true if part of the process involves falsifying other memories!? How can jurors tell repressed memory fact from repressed memory fiction?

Some scientists have looked at the recovered-memory therapy techniques, such as hypnosis and guided-imagery, that therapists use to explore patient’s claims of repressed memories, in a bid to better understand repression. However, scientists skeptical about the existence of unconscious repression rightfully quote the British Psychological Society’s 2001 Report, The Nature of Hypnosis:

“…what is incontrovertible is that using hypnosis … carries a real risk of producing substantial pseudo-memories.”

Fittingly, as the police psychiatrist explains in the movie Repression:

“Technically it’s called ‘false memory syndrome’, but I call it the ‘power of suggestion run amok’.”

While false memory syndrome is NOT considered a syndrome in the DSM, the production of false memories is indeed real and has been tested in the lab, and the term is widely used to describe the hypothesis that recovered memories have the potential to be partially incorrect or altogether false.

In fact, this year, one study indicates that it is not the process of hypnosis itself that can produce false memories in some individuals. In fact, the results suggest that those that are the most readily hypnotized, i.e. are highly suggestible and have flexible belief systems, are also more susceptible to the development of false memories. Memory retrieval techniques will undoubtedly have to be refined to buffer against such effects and robustly tested for a strong standing in court.

Future directives

For now, looking across both psychology and neuroscience research, my personal opinion, for what it is worth, is that unconsciously repressed memories may feel real to the people experiencing them, and may possibly be essential to our existence as socially sensitive and emotional beings living in a world filled with largely unpredictable traumatic events. But don’t get hung up on the details.

When it comes to the courtroom, perhaps scientific efforts are better spent on how we could possibly determine whether someone is consciously faking or inadvertently falsifying a memory, or is in fact reporting total recall. Ultimately, should we really care that someone simply successfully willed the memory away overtime rather than this happening without their volition?


Bernstein DM, Scoboria A, & Arnold R (2015). The consequences of suggesting false childhood food events. Acta psychologica, 156, 1-7 PMID: 25613303

Brewin CR, & Andrews B (2014). Why it is scientifically respectable to believe in repression: a response to Patihis, Ho, Tingen, Lilienfeld, and Loftus (2014). Psychological science, 25 (10), 1964-6 PMID: 25134717

Dasse MN, Elkins GR, & Weaver CA 3rd (2015). Hypnotizability, not suggestion, influences false memory development. The International journal of clinical and experimental hypnosis, 63 (1), 110-28 PMID: 25365130

McNally, R. (2003). Recovering memories of trauma: A view from the laboratory Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12 (1), 32-35 DOI: 10.1111/1467-8721.01217

Patihis, L., Lilienfeld, S., Ho, L., & Loftus, E. (2014). Unconscious Repressed Memory Is Scientifically Questionable Psychological Science, 25 (10), 1967-1968 DOI: 10.1177/0956797614547365

Patihis, L., Ho, L., Tingen, I., Lilienfeld, S., & Loftus, E. (2013). Are the “Memory Wars” Over? A Scientist-Practitioner Gap in Beliefs About Repressed Memory Psychological Science, 25 (2), 519-530 DOI: 10.1177/0956797613510718

Image via scyther5 / Shutterstock.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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