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mental health mondays :: something to remember

this is the third and final chapter in our look at post-traumatic stress disorder. having looked at the condition and its different forms over the last two weeks, i thought it was an appropriate time to look at one of the most controversial things associated with it: the phenomenon of recovered memory.

it is not uncommon for people suffering from ptsd to have amnesia. in order to cope with memories that are "too much" for it to process, the brain dissociates them from the rest of its contents, locking them away and stuffing the key somewhere conscious you can't find it. as you might have guessed, this is something related to other dissociative disorders, all of which stem from your brain considering something and deciding you'd be better off without it, either temporarily or permanently.

dissociative amnesia is not the same as post-traumatic amnesia, which is another type of amnesia, borne of a traumatic event, but where the memory loss is caused by physical damage to the brain. of course, it's not impossible to have both these things happening at once [soldiers from wwi suffered brain damage from the percussive blasts of shells, but also showed dissociative symptoms caused by the horrors to which they were exposed]. but generally, unless there is notable physical trauma to the head [or an undiagnosed problem with the brain], amnesia regarding traumatic events is a likely dissociative.

and now the bad news: the short bit i've written thus far already exceeds what is agreed on by science about dissociative amnesia. some scientists don't think it even exists, claiming that memories are processed the same way no matter what sort of memories they are and that the brain just doesn't choose to omit some. that's an extremist stance, but it's still pretty common to hear the wholesale dismissal of "recovered" memories, which, as the name suggests, are those which are ultimately unlocked from the secret hiding place where the brain has stored them.

and there's good reason to be skeptical. the psychology of repressed memory first emerged in the eighties, coming to the public's attention largely through an autobiography called michelle remembers and a sudden onslaught of cases of satanic ritual abuse, in particular a series of lurid charges against the proprietors and staff of the mcmartin preschool in california. both of these involved allegations of almost incomprehensible abuse of children and animals, and one could hardly blame the subjects for having blocked it from their conscious life. the only problem? none of it was true. indeed, the tales of satanic abuse seemed more closely related to a repressed cultural anxiety as more and more children were placed into daycare so that both parents could be in the workforce than to repressed memories.

the techniques used by many psychologists and social workers investigating claims of ritual abuse were suggestive and coercive and, given that the alleged victims were still preschool-aged children, may have actually implanted a false memory in them. however, there is evidence that some children do repress abuse. which leaves us with the conundrum that there are repressed memories, they can be recovered, but doing the recovery incorrectly can result in the emergence of realistic-seeming memories that actually aren't true.

i highly recommend reading elizabeth loftus' seminal paper [written in 1993] the reality of repressed memories. dr. loftus has done a great deal of work on memory and on the malleability of memory. her work is important in understanding how false memories can be introduced [and how their introduction can be avoided]. it is not without its own controversies [nothing in this area is], but it's an excellent starting point. i also found this article [registration required to read the full piece], which is a look at the science related to repressed memories [and where it is lacking].

the good news is that the incidence of truly repressed memories is rare enough that you're unlikely to have anything lurking in your subconscious waiting for you to trip over it. if there are memories that you worry you- things that feel disturbing or which you struggle to place in context- they are worth noting and discussing with a psychiatrist or psychologist.

that said, i'm also wary of investing these things with greater power than they deserve and so i'll add: not everything that we suddenly recall is something that's been repressed. we forget things that are important to us all the time, even things that caused us to significantly alter our behaviour. i couldn't tell you who taught me to tie my shoelaces, but i retain the skill. give your brain permission to have lost a few things over the years before you accuse it of hiding things from you. 

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