Can People Really Repress Memories?

Prof Louise Newman

writer

Prof Louise Newman

Director of the Centre for Women’s Mental Health at the Royal Women’s Hospital and Professor of Psychiatry, University of Melbourne

Prof Louise Newman

The Australian newspaper recently reported the royal commission investigating institutional child sex abuse was advocating psychologists use “potentially dangerous” therapy techniques to recover repressed memories in clients with history of trauma. The reports suggest researchers and doctors are speaking out against such practices, which risk implanting false memories in the minds of victims.

The debate about the nature of early trauma memories and their recovery isn’t new. Since Sigmund Freud developed the idea of “repression” – where people store away memories of stressful childhood events so they don’t interfere with daily life – psychologists and law practitioners have been arguing about the nature of memory and whether it’s possible to create false memories of past situations.

Recovery from trauma for some people involves recalling and understanding past events. But repressed memories, where the victim remembers nothing of the abuse, are relatively uncommon and there is little reliable evidence about their frequency in trauma survivors. According to reports from clinical practice and experimental studies of recall, most patients can partially recall events, even if elements of these have been suppressed.

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Prof Louise Newman

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Prof Louise Newman

Director of the Centre for Women’s Mental Health at the Royal Women’s Hospital and Professor of Psychiatry, University of Melbourne

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