August 30, 2006


Traumatic memories recalled better than positive events
(Quentin Casey, National Post, August 30th, 2006)

A new Canadian study shows that victims of traumatic events can recall their experiences vividly and with great detail, even after many years, refuting a popular belief that we repress many of our bad memories.

In fact, the study indicates that traumatic memories, such as those of physical or sexual assault, are recalled with much better accuracy than positive memories.

"The vast major of people [believe] in repression ... that we go through a horrific event and that our unconscious minds will force it out of our recollection," said Steve Porter, study co-author and a Dalhousie University psychology professor. "We really found no evidence of that."

Which is why we all remember Jimmy Carter.

Posted by Peter Burnet at August 30, 2006 2:51 PM

I don't think we can say one way or the other. It said that everone then alive remembers where he was and what he was doing when he learned Kennedy had been shot. Likewise our memories of 9-11 are mostly quite acute.

Yet we also remember the details of the birth of our first child in 1981, and as those Carmelite nuns would undertstand, I remember when God showed me what leaves looked like in 1974, or when He told me what "per omnia saecula saeculorum" meant at 10:30 A.M. on Easter Sunday morning 1998.

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 30, 2006 4:29 PM

I remember daily to forget the abuse I suffered at home as a child.

Posted by: obc at August 30, 2006 5:00 PM

I forget why I keep posting comments here.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at August 30, 2006 5:11 PM

Straw man alert! Freud never claimed that memories of traumatic events were *always* repressed, only that some were. And setting aside the "repressed memory of child molestation" hysteria of the early '90s, I'm sure that most psychologists and psychiatrists have personally seen cases of actual repressed memories.

Posted by: PapayaSF at August 30, 2006 7:52 PM


Oh well, if you promise you are sure, I guess that will do.

Can you venture an opinion as to the difference between a repressed memory and something you have just forgotten? When I talk to my siblings, I realize there are all kinds of things I don't remember. How come the bad ones are repressed and the good ones aren't?

Posted by: Peter B at August 30, 2006 8:01 PM

Ha, ha. If OJ can make silly declarations like "There's no such thing as species," I can't say something far less controversial, like betting that most psychologists have had first-hand experience with repressed memories? I'm not saying that everyone has 'em, or even that every person seeing a shrink has 'em, just that most shrinks have seen them at one time or another. Their existence is not controversial (though their frequency is).

Bad memories can be repressed because people don't want to face them. We avoid pain and seek pleasure; that's not a mystery.

Freud didn't come up with his ideas he wanted to make stuff up, he was trying to explain what he found in analysis with real people. I'm not going to defend every idea of his, but it's pretty undeniable that the subconscious exists, and that lots of odd, irrational things can happen in the human mind.

Posted by: PapayaSF at August 30, 2006 10:43 PM

PapaSF, if a memory can be repressed, how would a psychologist see it? Filling in assumed blanks looks dangerous to me. I haven't seen any bad memories get repressed. I have seen them explained away. Yes, odd, irrational things can happen, like people seeing what they want to see. It's not surprising that a treatment that has been outdone by M & M's would be so trusting of bad thinking.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at August 31, 2006 12:47 AM

Robert, the psychologist sees it when the patient recalls it, when the therapy brings it up. Freud invented the concepts of the unconscious and repression to explain what he found in some patients: odd behavior that went away once the patient recalled a painful memory that had been "forgotten."

Posted by: PapayaSF at August 31, 2006 3:16 AM


Bad memories can be repressed because people don't want to face them.

Or maybe they just don't attach the significance to them that the psychologist thinks they should and sets out to make them see. The memory isn't forgotten or repressed, but the conclusions that the shrink thinks flow from it are avoided.

I think we all have a vague sense that there may some general truth there for seriously disordered people who were treated extrememly cruelly and lovelessly as children. But, as Johnson said, there is a big difference between treating the sick and coddling the unhappy. The key is not so much what is remembered or forgotten, but the linking of what is forgotten to "traumatic" with all the dreary, familiar consequences. Support group, anyone?. Tort action? A life defined by psychobabble?

One of the reasons psychotherapy is so popular starting in our thirties is that it corresponds to the maturing period where we cease to see our parents as omniscient and omnipotent and start to consciously resist being beholden to their ways. (the teenage revolt years are just a contrarian blip). The psychologist makes it easier by allowing us to get angry and blame others for what is really often just coming to terms with the fact that "you can't always get what you want." That's also why people turn to them so readily after a divorce or other setback, also a common feature of early middle age. It can be comforting and helpful for the chronically self-blaming, but it also frequently drives people to life-long fixations with their feelings and victimhood, and their life just keeps spiralling downwards.

Have you ever heard of a psychotherapist who was trying to convince a patient that his/her parents really loved them and weren't nearly as bad as they think, and who set out to help them recover all those repressed good memories as proof?

Posted by: Peter B at August 31, 2006 5:59 AM

PapayaSF, the psychologist sees it when the patient recalls it. Ah, so repression means "repression", like species means "species". I'm having trouble keeping up with the new, "scientific" language. Thanks for the heads up.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at August 31, 2006 10:49 AM

Peter, I'm not going to defend everything that goes under the heading of "therapy" because yes, there is a lot of silliness in that category, but yes, therapists have been known to help patients to the realization that their parents weren't as bad as they thought. For example, a child can end up feeling unloved because one or both parents died when he was very young. A therapist would then help him to understand that his parents did love him and didn't intentionally abandon him.

Robert, snideness is unbecoming. You asked how a psychologist can see a repressed memory, and I told you: it comes up in the course of therapy. That's not tautological: after you find something you've previously lost, that doesn't contradict the fact that it was lost at one point.

Posted by: PapayaSF at August 31, 2006 5:39 PM


Ok, but you are dancing around the specific issue of repressed memories. Papaya, it was politically correct witchcraft that caused untold damge and still is doing so. Deal with it.

Posted by: Peter B at August 31, 2006 8:22 PM

What am I dancing around? I said repressed memories do exist, but that they don't happen to everyone or for every traumatic event. This is an entirely uncontroversial statement everywhere, except around here.

And what does this have to do with political correctness? Freud was trying to explain what he found in actual cases, not trying to force reality to fit some preconceived framework. Political (or religious) correctness is what's going on here, where you folks are attacking the 19th century "God killers" because you can't accept some of the implications of their ideas or because don't like what other people did with them decades later. That's fine up to a point, but Freud (and yes, Darwin, too, though I won't defend Marx) were trying to explain aspects of the world as they found it. I don't blame them for what some people did with their ideas later on any more than I blame Jesus for abortion-clinic bombers.

You and OJ and company can gripe all you want about the legacy of Freud and Darwin, but you are just barking at the caravan. While they were no doubt wrong in some respects, their core insights still form the basis of their respective fields, and will continue to do so long after we're all gone. All you're doing is helping make the leftist argument that conservatives are anti-science.

Posted by: PapayaSF at August 31, 2006 11:24 PM

Repressed memories exist, but not for everyone and not for all traumatic memories and who knows the when, where, whys, etc. 'cause it is all such a mystery? Sorry, but that was not the spirit of the repressed memory cult that paid so well, gave these guys summary powers over the lives of others and caused such havoc.

If all you are saying is that Freud had insights about the way our minds work, you are right. Darwin had insights too (frequently acknowledged here) and even Marx had some interesting things to say about alienation.

But none of them were just about insights or about being "a little bit right here, a little bit wrong there". They and there followers were about constructing closed rational systems based upon purported universal objectively observed truths through which everything about human nature, economics and natural history could be explained to the exclusion of all other theories and explanations. You can throw the anti-science charge around and try to paint us as rubes if you want, but it was their "scientific" followers who became the dangerous destructive fanatics, not the sceptics.

Posted by: Peter B at September 1, 2006 6:15 AM

I was never defending closed systems of explanation that exclude all other explanations, nor dangerous fanatics, so you can relax now.

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 1, 2006 10:57 AM

You always defend the fanatics--Darwinists chiefly.

Posted by: oj at September 1, 2006 11:01 AM

So says the fellow who claims all Shi'ites and illegal aliens are just misunderstood peaceful types and future Republicans, that we should have nuked Stalin, and that God must have intelligently designed every feature of every living thing, including the human appendix! Nothing fanatic about any of that.

If you had carefully read what I've written, you'd see that while I defend Darwin and evolution, I don't defend any "fanatics." I don't defend people people who claim evolution somehow proves atheism. I don't defend using Darwin's ideas as an excuse to slaughter people. I don't claim that Darwin's ideas (or Freud's) are perfect or the last word, and that nothing can compete with them: I just say that nobody around here has made any convincing arguments. Using Piltdown Man as an argument against evolution is like using all those "pieces of the true Cross" as arguments against Christianity. Surely you can see the logical flaw there.

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 2, 2006 2:22 PM