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Papers on the 

Trauma-Memory Argument

and Recovered-Memory Therapy


Published Papers

Read "Exhumed Memory" (1998).  The first article written in the series, for an invited address in 1993, did not appear in print until 1998 due to the exigencies of the publication process.  It traces the history of recovered memory therapy from the time of Breuer and Freud's Studies on Hysteria, through the two world wars, to the present time, and critically analyzes several foundational studies.  It also offers a definition of "false memory syndrome" that has been widely adopted in the literature.  

Read "The Trauma-Memory Argument and Recovered Memory Therapy",  originally published in a special issue of the journal Consciousness & Cognition (1995), and expanded for publication in book form (1996).  Expands on the critique offered in Exhumed Memory" (see above), and comments on a report of the British Psychological Society's Working Party on Recovered Memories, which -- unlike most official reports issued at the time -- offered support for the trauma-memory argument and recovered-memory therapy.

Read "Suffering from Reminiscences: Exhumed Memory, Implicit Memory, and the Return of the Repressed" (1997).  Beginning with a review of Freud's doctrine of the "return of the repressed" in symptoms, critically examines the argument that "body memories" and the like are implicit expressions of repressed or dissociated memories for trauma.  Argues on logical grounds that past traumatic events cannot legitimately be inferred from current psychological and behavioral symptoms, and argues that independent corroboration is required before recovered memories are taken seriously as representations of historical events.

Read "Interrogative Suggestibility and 'Memory Work'" (2001), co-authored with Katharine Krause Shobe.  Explores the parallels between interrogative suggestibility in forensic interviews and in  therapeutic "memory work", which may give rise to false memories of trauma in clinical situations.  Argues that clinical practitioners cannot disavow responsibility for independently corroborating traumatic memories reported by their patients -- especially if therapy is based on the assumption that trauma lies at the heart of their patients' problems.  

Read "Is Traumatic Memory Special?" (1997), co-authored with Katharine Krause Shobe.  Commissioned for a special issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, "memory as the Theater of the Past", edited by S.J. Lynn and D.G. Payne.  The paper critically reviews the claim, made in various forms by Lenore Terr, Bessel van der Kolk, and Jennifer Freyd, that memories of traumatic events have special properties that render them particularly vulnerable to repression, dissociation, or other amnestic processes.  Link to sequel.

Read "No Need for Repression" (2002), a commentary on "Inhibitory Processes and the Control of Memory Retrieval" by M.C. Anderson & B.L. Levy.  Anderson and his colleagues (Nature, 410, 366-368, 2001) have reported a series of experiments employing a variant on the "directed forgetting" paradigm -- in which subjects study a list of items, and then receive instructions to forget some of them, followed by memory tests .  The general finding of such experiments is that instructions to forget do seem to work under some circumstances.  However, Anderson and his colleagues, as well as some other researchers (e.g., M.A. Conway in Nature, 2001, 410, 319-320) have repeatedly referred to their experimental results as relevant to Freud's views about the repression of trauma.  In my commentary, I criticized this implication, pointing out a large number of differences between Freudian repression and directed forgetting -- points that has also been made by other authorities (e.g., D.L. Schacter in Lancet, 2001, 357, 1724-1725).  In their reply, Anderson and Levy assert that Freud included conscious suppression as a form of repression, which is true but beside the point.  The important point, which Anderson and Levy ignore, is that there is no evidence for Freudian repression.  Specifically, there is no evidence that traumatized people repress memories of traumatic events.  Put another way: the problem with trauma is that people remember it all too well.  Anderson's studies of directed forgetting are interesting, in and of themselves, but they have nothing whatsoever to do with repression, trauma, or memory.

Read "Imaging the Suppression of Emotional Memory", unpublished comment on "Prefrontal Regions Orchestrate Suppression of emotional memories via a Two-Phase Process" by B.E. Depue, T. Curran, & M.T. Banich (Science, July 12, 2007).  These authors used Anderson's "Think-No Think" paradigm in another investigation of the suppression of memory.

Read "An Unbalanced Balancing Act: Blocked, Recovered, and False Memories in the Laboratory and Clinic" (2004), an invited commentary on "False and Recovered Memories in the Laboratory and Clinic: A Review of Experimental and Clinical Evidence" by D.H. Gleaves, S.M. Smith, L.D. Butler, & D. Spiegel, D., appearing in Clinical Psychology: Science & Practice, in press.  In their overview of relevant clinical and laboratory research, Gleaves et al. downplay laboratory evidence concerning false memories, and exaggerate laboratory support for the blocked and recovered memories of trauma. They also exaggerate clinical evidence for blocked memories of trauma, while downplaying the very real possibility of false memories. The result is an unbalanced view of the literature on trauma and memory that, if left uncorrected, will deepen the split between science and practice, and further undermine the status and autonomy of clinical psychology as a profession.

Read "Trauma and Memory Revisited", a paper presented at the 6th Tsukuba International Conference on Memory, devoted to the topic of Memory and Emotion, March 15, 2005 (the conference proceedings will be published in 2006).  The paper reviews research and theory pertaining to the trauma-memory argument, and concludes that there is no evidence that trauma causes memory impairments of the sort traditionally associated with pathological processes of repression or dissociation.  The paper includes a critique of modern statements of the doctrines of repression and dissociation, including the work of Anderson et al. and Nadel & Jacobs (1998), and an overview of prospective studies of memory for traumatic events.  

Read "The Problem of Child Sexual Abuse", letter to the editor of Science written with R.J. McNally, E.F. Loftus, and H.G. Pope", responding to a Policy Forum on "The Science of Child Sexual Abuse" by J.J. Freyd et al., which suggested that special cognitive and neurological mechanisms were required to understand "the forgetting of abuse".

Read "Repression: A Unified Theory of a Will-o-the-Wisp", commentary on "A Unified Theory of Repression" by Matthew H. Erdelyi, to appear in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.  By conflating Freudian repression with thought suppression and memory reconstruction, Erdelyi defines repression so broadly that the concept loses its meaning. Worse, perhaps, he fails to provide any evidence that repression actually happens, and ignores evidence that it does not.



Occasional Commentary

Read "Traumatic Memory: Not So Very Special After All?" (2001), a sequel to the Shobe & Kihlstrom paper.  Replies to a paper by Lynn Nadel and W. Jake Jacobs (1998), "Traumatic Memory Is Special", which argues that high levels of emotional stress can impair the functions of the hippocampus, thus rendering victims amnesic for traumatic events.  This material was incorporated into "Trauma and Memory Revisited", presented at the 2005 Tsukuba International Conference on Memory, and subsequently published in the proceedings of that conference.  Link to the original Shobe & Kihlstrom paper.  Reference: Kihlstrom, J.F.  (2006).  Trauma and memory revisited.  In Uttl, B., Ohta, N, & Siegenthaler, A. L. (Eds.), Memory and Emotions: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (pp. 259-291).  New York: Blackwell.

Continuing the theme...

A paper by S. Porter and A.R. Birt, "Is traumatic memory special? A comparison of traumatic memory characteristics with memory for other emotional life experiences" (Applied Cognitive Psychology, 2001, 15, S101-S117), found very few phenomenological differences (e.g., quality, clarity, coherence) between traumatic and non-traumatic event-memories.

A paper by E. Geraerts and her colleagues ("Traumatic memories of war veterans: Not so special after all", with D. Kozaric-Kovacic, H. Merckelbach, T. Peraica, M. Jelicic, and I. Candel, Consciousness & Cognition, 2006, in press), likewise found that traumatic memories were not qualitatively different from neutral memories.

A Pill for Traumatic Memory?  Although there is very little evidence that trauma causes amnesia (which is the claim at stake in most of my work on trauma, memory, and recovered-memory therapy), I don't doubt that people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience vivid, intrusive memories of the traumatic events.  This sort of memory problem is part and parcel of the definition of PTSD, and there is good reason that this feature of traumatic memory is mediated by the involvement of particular emotional pathways (in fact, the involvement of these pathways in traumatic memory is precisely what, in neuroscientific terms, renders the trauma-memory argument and recovered-memory therapy so implausible).  Presumably, treating these memories, to diminish their impact on the person, would be a useful approach to treating post-traumatic stress disorder.  In fact, it has been proposed that certain drugs, which modulate the brain pathways involved in forming traumatic memories, might be administered to trauma victims in an attempt to prevent these memories from forming in the first place (or, at least, reducing them to the status of "normal" memories), and thus reducing their vulnerability to PTSD.  An article by the syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman discussed the pros and cons of this proposal (reducing Suffering with Pills Reduces the Meaning of Life", Boston Globe, 11/26/02.  Goodman points out that while such proposals are completely consistent with the overriding goal of medicine to prevent illness and reduce suffering, there are also some dangers in attempting to produce what she calls "loss lite".  Referring to the "cosmetic" use of the antidepressant drug Prozac by people who are not clinically depressed, Goodman asks "Where do we draw the line on the prescription pad?".  Goodman's question reminds us that our experiences help make us who we are, and our memories of those experiences are part of our identities.  Even when the experiences, and the memories to which they give rise, are traumatic in nature, it is not clear that we can remove them, or even diminish them, without altering ourselves in the process.  Goodman does not mean to "romanticize mental illness", and neither do I, but it's not at all clear that we really want to abolish memories for certain experiences that we've had, no matter how traumatic they might have been.  Treatments for PTSD would probably better focus on teaching people how to cope with traumatic experiences, than on ablating traumatic memories.


This page last revised 08/21/12 02:58:06 PM.