Further Study – Academic

Otgaar, H., Howe, M., Patihis, L., Merckelbach, H., Lynn, S., Lilienfeld, S., Loftus, E., The Return of the Repressed: The Persistent and Problematic Claims of Long-Forgotten Trauma (2019)

Can purely psychological trauma lead to a complete blockage of autobiographical memories? This long-standing question about the existence of repressed memories has been at the heart of one of the most heated debates in modern psychology. These so-called memory wars originated in the 1990s, and many scholars have assumed that they are over. We demonstrate that this assumption is incorrect and that the controversial issue of repressed memories is alive and well and may even be on the rise. We review converging research and data from legal cases indicating that the topic of repressed memories remains active in clinical, legal, and academic settings. We show that the belief in repressed memories occurs on a nontrivial scale (58%) and appears to have increased among clinical psychologists since the 1990s. We also demonstrate that the scientifically controversial concept of dissociative amnesia, which we argue is a substitute term for memory repression, has gained in popularity. Finally, we review work on the adverse side effects of certain psychotherapeutic techniques, some of which may be linked to the recovery of repressed memories. The memory wars have not vanished. They have continued to endure and contribute to potentially damaging consequences in clinical, legal, and academic contexts.

Patihis, L, Ho, L, Herrera, M., Memory experts’ beliefs about repressed memory (2018)

What we believe about how memory works affects the decisions we make in many aspects of life. In Patihis, Ho et al. [Patihis, L., Ho, L. Y., Tingen, I. W., Lilienfeld, S. O., & Loftus, E. F. (2014). Are the "memory wars" over? A scientist-practitioner gap in beliefs about repressed memory. Psychological Science, 25, 519-530.], we documented several group's beliefs on repressed memories and other aspects of how memory works. Here, we present previously unreported data on the beliefs of perhaps the most credible minority in our dataset: memory experts. We provide the statistics and written responses of the beliefs for 17 memory experts. Although memory experts held similarly sceptical beliefs about repressed memory as other research-focused groups, they were significantly more sceptical about repressed memory compared to practitioners, students and the public. Although a minority of memory experts wrote that they maintained an open mind about repressed memories - citing research such as retrieval inhibition - all of the memory experts emphasised the dangers of memory distortion.

Lynn, S., Merckelbach, H., Polizzi, C., Reflections on Recovered Memories: Comment on Patihis and Pendergrast (2019)

In this comment on Patihis and Pendergrast (this issue, p. 3), we challenge an assumption that underpins recovered memory therapies: that there exists a close link of traumatic experiences with dissociation. We further suggest that (a) researchers examine how therapists who believe in repressed memories instill this belief in clients and establish expectations that current problems can be interpreted in light of past traumatic experiences, (b) recovered memories could be classified and studied as a function of how events come to light and are interpreted, and (c) therapists routinely provide informed consent regarding recovered memories and suggestive techniques.

Pendergrast, M. & Patihis, L., Reports of Recovered Memories in Therapy, Informed Consent, and Generalizability: Response to Commentaries (2018)

We respond to various comments on our article (this issue, p. 3), which reported prevalence percentages of reports of recovered memories in therapy. We consider arguments against informed consent in therapy and conclude that we are in favor of informed consent that includes information about research on the malleability of memory. We note some useful suggestions from commentators, such as future research investigating iatrogenic outcomes of those who report recovered memories and investigating whether therapy-induced recovered memories are also an issue in various other countries. We understand that there are questions as to whether our sample was representative of the adult population of the United States, but we maintain that such questions can be investigated empirically and we could not find much evidence of systematic divergence. We investigated representativeness on gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and age and made adjustments where possible. Future research should investigate reports of recovered memory in other general public samples.

Pendergrast, M. & Patihis, L., Reports of Recovered Memories of Abuse in Therapy in a Large Age-Representative U.S. National Sample: Therapy Type and Decade Comparisons (2018)

The potential hazards of endeavoring to recover ostensibly repressed memories of abuse in therapy have previously been documented. Yet no large survey of the general public about memory recovery in therapy has been conducted. In an age-representative sample of 2,326 adults in the United States, we found that 9% (8% weighted to be representative) of the total sample reported seeing therapists who discussed the possibility of repressed abuse, and 5% (4% weighted) reported recovering memories of abuse in therapy for which they had no previous memory. Participants who reported therapists discussing the possibility of repressed memories of abuse were 20 times more likely to report recovered abuse memories than those who did not. Recovered memories of abuse were associated with most therapy types, and most associated with those who reported starting therapy in the 1990s. We discuss possible problems with such purported memory recovery and make recommendations for clinical training.

Patihis, L. & Ho, L., Tingen, S., Loftus, E., Are the “memory wars” over? A scientist-practitioner gap in beliefs about repressed memory (2014)

The “memory wars” of the 1990s refers to the controversy between some clinicians and memory scientists about the reliability of repressed memories. To investigate whether such disagreement persists, we compared various groups’ beliefs about memory and compared their current beliefs with beliefs expressed in past studies. In Study 1, we found high rates of belief in repressed memory among undergraduates. We also found that greater critical-thinking ability was associated with more skepticism about repressed memories. In Study 2, we found less belief in repressed memory among mainstream clinicians today compared with the 1990s. Groups that contained research-oriented psychologists and memory experts expressed more skepticism about the validity of repressed memories relative to other groups. Thus, a substantial gap between the memory beliefs of clinical-psychology researchers and those of practitioners persists today. These results hold implications for the potential resolution of the science-practice gap and for the dissemination of memory research in the training of mental-health professionals.

McNally, R., Searching for repressed memory (2012)

This chapter summarizes the work of my research group on adults who report either repressed, recovered, or continuous memories of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) or who report no history of CSA. Adapting paradigms from cognitive psychology, we tested hypotheses inspired by both the "repressed memory" and "false memory" perspectives on recovered memories of CSA. We found some evidence for the false memory perspective, but no evidence for the repressed memory perspective. However, our work also suggests a third perspective on recovered memories that does not require the concept of repression. Some children do not understand their CSA when it occurs, and do not experience terror. Years later, they recall the experience, and understanding it as abuse, suffer intense distress. The memory failed to come to mind for years, partly because the child did not encode it as terrifying (i.e., traumatic), not because the person was unable to recall it.

Lynn, A., Lilienfeld, S., Merckelbach, H., Giesbrecht, T., van Heugten–van der Kloet, D., Dissociation and Dissociative Disorders: Challenging Conventional Wisdom (2012)

Conventional wisdom holds that dissociation is a coping mechanism triggered by exposure to intense stressors. Drawing on recent research from multiple laboratories, we challenge this prevailing posttraumatic model of dissociation and dissociative disorders. Proponents of this model hold that dissociation and dissociative disorders are associated with (a) intense objective stressors (e.g., childhood trauma), (b) serious cognitive deficits that impede processing of emotionally laden information, and (c) an avoidant information-processing style characterized by a tendency to forget painful memories. We review findings that contradict these widely accepted assumptions and argue that a sociocognitive model better accounts for the extant data. We further propose a perspective on dissociation based on a recently established link between a labile sleep–wake cycle and memory errors, cognitive failures, problems in attentional control, and difficulties in distinguishing fantasy from reality. We conclude that this perspective may help to reconcile the posttraumatic and sociocognitive models of dissociation and dissociative disorders.

Meyersburg, C.,Bogdan, R.,Gallo, D.,McNally, R., False memory propensity in people reporting recovered memories of past lives (2009)

Are elevated rates of false recall and recognition in the Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) paradigm associated with false autobiographical memories in everyday life? To investigate this issue, the authors recruited participants who reported improbable memories of past lives and compared their DRM performance with that of control participants who reported having lived only one life (i.e., their current one). Relative to control participants, those reporting memories of past lives exhibited significantly higher false recall and recognition rates in the DRM paradigm, and they scored higher on measures of magical ideation and absorption as well. The groups did not differ on correct recall, recognition, or intelligence. False memory propensity in the DRM paradigm may tap proneness for developing false memories outside the laboratory.

Geraerts, E. & McNally, R., Forgetting unwanted memories: directed forgetting and thought suppression methods (2008)

Experimental psychopathologists have tested hypotheses regarding mechanisms that ought to be operative if victims possess skills for forgetting material related to trauma. In this article, we review research on directed forgetting and thought suppression paradigms, concentrating on laboratory studies involving attempts by individuals reporting trauma histories to forget emotionally negative material. Most studies have shown that trauma survivors, especially those with post-traumatic stress disorder, are characterized by a breakdown in the ability to forget disturbing material. Studies on individuals reporting repressed or recovered memories of trauma have not confirmed predictions regarding heightened forgetting skills for trauma-related words. However, recent research on suppressing disturbing autobiographical memories suggests that people who report spontaneously recalling childhood abuse outside of psychotherapy may, indeed, possess skills for not thinking about disturbing material.

McNally, R., Dispelling confusion about traumatic dissociative amnesia (2007)

How survivors of trauma remember--or forget--their most terrifying experiences lies at the core of one of the most bitter controversies in psychiatry and psychology: the debate regarding repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. Most experts hold that traumatic events--those experienced as overwhelmingly terrifying and often life-threatening--are remembered very well; however, traumatic dissociative amnesia theorists disagree. Although acknowledging that traumatic events are usually memorable, these theorists nevertheless claim that a sizable minority of survivors are incapable of remembering their trauma. That is, the memory is stored but dissociated (or "repressed") from awareness. However, the evidence that these theorists adduce in support of the concept of traumatic dissociative amnesia is subject to other, more plausible interpretations. The purpose of this review is to dispel confusion regarding the controversial notion of dissociated (or repressed) memory for trauma and to show how people can recall memories of long-forgotten sexual abuse without these memories first having been repressed.

McNally, R., The Science and Folklore of Traumatic Amnesia (2006)

Some clinical theorists believe that certain experiences are so overwhelmingly traumatic that many victims dissociate their memory for the experience (Cleaves, Smith, Butler, & Spiegel, this issue). Unfortunately, clinicians who endorse this hypothesis often exhibit confusion about the very studies they cite in support of it. For example, they often misinterpret everyday forget‐fulness that develops after a trauma with an inability to remember the trauma itself; they confuse organic amnesia with traumatic amnesia; they confuse psychogenic amnesia (massive non‐organic retrograde amnesia coupled with loss of personal identity) with (alleged) inability to remember a traumatic event; and they confuse not thinking about something (e.g., sexual abuse) for a long period of time with an inability to remember it (i.e., amnesia). The purpose of this commentary is to dispel some of this confusion.

McNally, R., Debunking myths about trauma and memory (2005)

How trauma victims remember--or forget--their most horrific experiences lies at the heart of the most bitter controversy in psychiatry and psychology in recent times. Whereas experts maintain that traumatic events--those experienced as overwhelmingly terrifying at the time of their occurrence--are remembered all too well, traumatic amnesia theorists disagree. Although these theorists acknowledge that trauma is often seemingly engraved on memory, they nevertheless maintain that a significant minority of survivors are incapable of remembering their trauma, thanks to mechanisms of either dissociation or repression. Unfortunately, the evidence they adduce in support of the concept of traumatic dissociative amnesia fails to support their claims. The purpose of this review is to dispel confusions and debunk myths regarding trauma and memory.

Piper, A. & Mersky, H., The persistence of folly: a critical examination of dissociative identity disorder: Pt I & Pt II (2004)

Pt I. The literature shows that 1) there is no proof for the claim that DID results from childhood trauma; 2) the condition cannot be reliably diagnosed; 3) contrary to theory, DID cases in children are almost never reported; and 4) consistent evidence of blatant iatrogenesis appears in the practices of some of the disorder's proponents. Therefore, DID is best understood as a culture-bound and often iatrogenic condition.

Pt II. In this second part of our review, we continue to explore the illogical nature of the arguments offered to support the concept of dissociative identity disorder (DID). We also examine the harm done to patients by DID proponents' diagnostic and treatment methods. It is shown that these practices reify the alters and thereby iatrogenically encourage patients to behave as if they have multiple selves. We next examine the factors that make impossible a reliable diagnosis of DID--for example, the unsatisfactory, vague, and elastic definition of "alter personality." Because the diagnosis is unreliable, we believe that US and Canadian courts cannot responsibly accept testimony in favour of DID. Finally, we conclude with a guess about the condition's status over the next 10 years.

Paris, J., A critical review of recovered memories in psychotherapy: Pt I & Pt II (1996)

Normal memories are surprisingly inaccurate. There is little evidence that normal memories can be repressed. There is no evidence that trauma makes repression more likely. Therefore, "recovery" of repressed memories is not consistent with the findings of empirical research.

Trauma is a risk factor for psychopathology, but is only one of many etiological factors in mental disorders. The search for recovered memories in psychotherapy could present dangers for patients. The most reliable memories of trauma are those that have been present throughout the patient's life.

Loftus, E., Memory distortion and false memory creation (1996)

The 1990s have brought to public attention thousands of cases that began when a grown-up daughter or son walked into a therapist's office seeking help for depression, low self-esteem, or any of a number of life's problems. Many of these cases grew to involve memories of childhood sexual abuse recovered while in therapy--memories that did not exist, or at least were not remembered, before therapy began. Many of these cases also involved families torn violently apart. What should we make of these new-found memories? Are they true memories that were successfully revived in therapy? Are they false memories that were unwittingly planted? Are they symbolic expressions--historically false but representing some deep underlying truth? Insights from cognitive psychology may shed some light. Much of the litigation that has resulted from the emergence of "repressed memories" has been hazardous to the patients, and their families, as well as to the therapists who treat them.

Loftus, E. & Pickrell, J., The formation of false memories (1995)

This paper reports the findings of the famous “Lost in a Mall” experiment.  This experiment, designed by Loftus and Pickrell (together with student James Coan) successfully demonstrated that it is possible to implant false memories individuals.  In the experiment, subjects were provided with four short narratives about childhood events for which they were asked to try to recall and supply additional details.  Unbeknownst to the subjects, one of the narratives (wherein the subject had been lost in a mall) was invented by the researchers.  A quarter of the subjects reported remembering the event.  Once told that one of the narratives was false, more than 20% failed to pick the correct one.