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The Memory Debate

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Can repeated, severe childhood abuse be forgotten?

A press release of a two year study by Professor Sydney Brandon was released in April 1998 by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and contained the following statement.

"There is no evidence that memories can be 'blocked out' by the mind, either by repression or by dissociation. Given the prevelance of childhood sexual abuse, even if only a small proportion of memories are repressed and only some of them subsequently recovered, there should be a significant number of corroborated cases recovered through psychotherapy in the literature. In fact, there is none."

The recovered memory project has an interesting archive containing 36 corroborated cases of recovered memory. See corroborated cases

The following is from an article by Wendy J. Murphy 'debunking the false memory myths in sexual abuse cases

The reality of traumatic memories

Research conducted over more than 100 years shows that the mind can avoid conscious narrative or visual recall of traumatic information and recover it years later. Several recent publications provide good overviews of the scientific support for recovered memories of sexual abuse survivors./7

In studies dating back to the 19th century, French philosopher and psychologist Pierre Janet found evidence that victims of trauma experienced amnesia for some or all aspects of the trauma./8 According to Janet, traumatic memories consist of images, sensations, and emotional and behavioral states. This is different from narrative memory-what laypeople commonly refer to as memory-otherwise known as symbolic or explicit memory.

Janet observed that intense emotional experiences could lead to continuous and retrograde amnesia that splits off the traumatic memories from ordinary consciousness. The traumatic information is nonetheless retained as "unconscious fixed ideas" that cannot be assimilated into consciousness as long as they have not been acknowledged and understood. Inability to understand and face the trauma causes it to intrude into consciousness in the form of terrifying perceptions, obsessional preoccupations, and anxiety disorders.

Janet's findings have consistently been confirmed in studies over the past century, including several in recent years (see accompanying sidebar). His research helps explain why some visual memories are recovered when stimulated by an emotional reminder of the traumatic event. To some extent, this is like the emotional reminder a person experiences when he or she hears an old love song or smells the cologne or perfume of a loved one.

Because of strong support in the research, recovered memory science has been recognized as valid by a number of medical authorities:

American Psychiatric Association. The DSM-IV recognizes the existence of posttraumatic stress disorder, dissociative amnesia, and dissociative identity disorder.9 Each of these terms, which refer to what laypeople usually call "repression," describes a fragmenting of the brain during a traumatic experience. This fragmenting process illustrates why trauma victims often cannot relate a cohesive visual narrative of child sexual abuse and why sometimes the memories of those incidents resemble seemingly unconnected and sometimes objectively unbelievable pieces of events.

These diagnoses reflect a well-established scientific recognition that the mind can avoid conscious visual recall of traumatic experiences. In most cases, the mere fact that these diagnoses are listed in the DSM-IV should be ample evidence to establish the reliability of expert scientific testimony about recovered memories.

The association has also issued a formal "Statement on Memories of Sexual Abuse," which noted,

Children and adolescents who have been abused cope with the trauma by using a variety of psychological mechanisms. In some instances, these coping mechanisms result in a lack of conscious awareness of the abuse for varying periods of time. Conscious thoughts and feelings stemming from the abuse may emerge at a later date./10

American Medical Association. A report of the AMA's Council on Scientific Affairs confirmed that there are cases in which amnesia resulted from childhood sexual abuse and that the "recovered memories proved to be correct."/11

British Psychological Society. This organization issued a working group report that called the false memory position on repression "extreme." According to the report, the scientific evidence reveals that between one-third and two-thirds of abuse victims had periods when they "totally or partially forgot the abuse." The report also noted that there is "much less evidence on the creation of false memories."/12

American Psychological Association. A recent association report acknowledged that "it is possible for memories of abuse that have been forgotten for a long time to be remembered."/13

In conclusion we can see historically that the repression and recovery of memories was and had been well accepted when applied to natural traumatic events or wartime incidents. When the terms were applied to sexual abuse the controversy and the debate began, but not on scientific grounds. see the comments by Dr. Van der Kolk

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