The Controversial Repressed Memory and Flashbulb Memory

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Some experiences are so disturbing that people actively work to repress those memories. There are others, called flashbulb memories, which are detailed recollections of learning something shocking or surprising that leaves a strong memory of the context in which people learned the event. Both types of memories are significant from the perspectives of clinical practitioners and the judicial system. However, many researchers share a different point of view, making the concept of these memories controversial.

Young woman and scenes from her life. Concept of memories and thoughts, positive and negative traumatic experience, psychological trauma.
Several important events in our life may linger in our memory, some pleasant, while others not so pleasant..
(Image: GoodStudio/Shutterstock)

Forgetting is usually a failure to encode information, and memory seems to decay with time and other memories can interfere with the retrieval process. However, there are other explanations to forgetting, which are more contentious. 

What Is Repressed Memory?

Several important events in our life may linger in our memory, some may be pleasant and others not so pleasant. For instance, you might have to undergo a root canal procedure next week but you try to actively push the painful process out of your mind. It is only natural for humans to distract themselves from such upsetting thoughts. But this is not an example of motivated forgetting or repression because in this case you don’t forget that you have to undergo the procedure.

In motivated forgetting, people forget certain events that they want to forget. ‘Repressed memories’ refer to a psychological phenomenon where the person involved actively works towards repressing memories, especially the ones which are traumatic and disturbing. While psychotherapists claim that their patients repressed their traumatic memories for years and retrieved it from their subconscious minds, there are lingering problems associated with the idea of repressed memories, for lack of scientific evidence. 

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The Controversy over Repressed Memories

It has been extremely difficult to study repressed memories as it is impossible to verify if a recovered memory is actually the real memory. For instance, if someone claims of having undergone a traumatic event when young, there is no way to prove if the memory is real. Further, even if a traumatic incident really happened, researchers have not been able to establish if the episode was merely a forgotten one or repressed.

Human brain being dumped with data, but memory systems have evolved to discard unwanted and unused information.
There are still many unanswered questions and contradictions around repressed memories.(Image: wan wei/Shutterstock)

Another reason to be hesitant to accept claims with respect to repressed memories is that they need not be accurate. Each one of us would have experienced a time when we discussed a past event with a friend, only to realize that both of us have a different recollection of the event. So, when a memory of a non-traumatic event could be so distorted, there is no reason to believe that repressed memories are not.

In addition, in many cases recovered repressed memories have turned out to be false and others have most likely not happened at all. One instance was a famous case when a Missouri woman recalled repressed memories of her father raping her, which resulted in two pregnancies that her father forced her to abort. However, later medical examination revealed that the woman was still a virgin and had never been pregnant. Though the woman believed that these were repressed memories of real events, they weren’t.

The fact that scientists have trouble verifying facts may not be reason enough to brush off motivated forgetting as non-existent. However, it should be noted that research suggests that victims of traumatic events remember the event more often and in too much detail. So, the claims that people suddenly remembered such events many years later remain a contested ground.

Since there are so many unanswered questions and contradictions around repressed memories, it would only be prudent to be cautious about the idea of repressed memories until further research establishes otherwise.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Flashbulb Memories

Certain memories in life are so deeply etched that it is difficult to forget them. For example, do you remember what were you doing when the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001? Where were you at that time? The most probable answer is a ‘Yes’. People have vivid details of the day when space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986 or when the terrorist attacks happened in 2001. They would have distinct memories of where, when, and how they learned the information. Psychologists use the term ‘flashbulb memories’ to describe these memories.

Flashbulb memories are very detailed, exceptionally vivid memories of the circumstances in which you heard surprising, important, or emotionally arousing news. It creates a very strong memory of learning about the news, but not the news itself. 

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Do Flashbulb Memories Change over Time?

A girl reading a book.
Even the most vivid and important memories are subject to forgetting and distortion, as they tend to fade away with time and a lot of interference also can happen. (Image: pathdoc/Shutterstock)

We perceive our memories as perfect as a video recorder that records an event and replays it back when needed. It might be hard to believe that in reality our memories are more fallible than we believe. Research and controlled experiments indicate that recalling is often a process of reconstructing what must have happened rather than directly remembering what happened. This is because when people try to recall a particular episode, only a few important highlights of the event immediately come to their memory. They, then try to reconstruct the rest of the event from the bits and pieces in the memory to make a sensible story.

Initially, researchers believed that flashbulb memories were special because they were immune to forgetting. However, subsequent studies suggested that they are similar to other memories. In one study, researchers asked participants to describe a flashbulb memory soon after the event occurred. Then months later, or in some cases even years later, the participants were asked to recall the same memory. Interestingly, the memories changed, often in dramatic ways. Yet, the participants thought that their memories were perfect. The study proved that flashbulb memories were not perfect or accurate, even though people were more confident about their accuracy. Hence, even the most vivid and important memories are subject to forgetting and distortion as they tend to fade away with time and a lot of interference also can happen.

Perils of Distortion

These flashbulb memory distortions don’t matter much under normal circumstances. However, they acquire significance in the context of eyewitnesses. There are many cases where an eyewitness identifies the culprit or the accused very confidently, only to find years later that the accused was actually innocent. 

Research evidence suggests that eyewitness’ memories could be misplaced and should not be over-emphasized while dealing with a case. Hundreds of research studies on forgetting and memory distortions suggest that the testimonies of eyewitnesses are not credible. One such research study showed participants the video footage of a store robbery and asked them to identify the suspect from the five photographs they were presented with. All the participants selected one photograph of the suspect, though the photograph of the actual culprit was not in the lineup. The study proved that all the participants had a false memory of the actual culprit and eyewitness’ identification was fraught with problems.

Though the above theories suggest that the memory systems are not perfect, cognitive psychologists believe that the imperfect memories are a benefit. Our reconstructive and imperfect memory systems are an adaptive feature that have evolved to provide us with access to information that helps us deal with the situations we encounter in our everyday lives.

Common Questions about the Controversial Repressed and Flashbulb Memories

Q: Is it possible to study repression in controlled laboratory conditions?

Researchers have tried to study motivated forgetting or repression in controlled laboratory conditions by telling people to try to forget things that they have learned. However, most cognitive psychologists felt these studies were investigating something different than true, unconscious repression.

Q: Why are imperfect memories important or essential?

Storing detailed memories of everything indefinitely may interfere with the brain’s ability to process new information. Hence, our brain has evolved to forget unwanted and unused information.

Q: Are flashbulb memories long lasting?

Yes, flashbulb memories last much longer and are retained for a lifetime. This is because they are recalled again and again.

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