Repressed Memories

I teach Consumer Behavior and try my best to keep politics out of my classroom.  I always despised teachers who took advantage of their position to shove their ideology down the throats of a captive audience and never want to do the same.  However, circumstances caused one of my lectures to address the most recent political controversy.  Fortunately, I gave the lecture one week before Dr. Ford became part of public culture.

I was teaching how we remember things.  First of all, our memories are very malleable.  See this short and fun video from Brain Games at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQ-96BLaKYQ.  The video was based on research by memory specialists such as Dr. Elizabeth Loftus.  She is a true research hero, and someone I strongly admire (we have never met).

In the latter half of last century, repression therapy based on the ideas of Freud and Bruer became popular again.  (My understanding is that Dr. Ford’s treatment included this type of therapy).  People were being arrested, tried, and jailed on the basis of these repressed memories that were brought to life by psychotherapists decades after the alleged events took place.  This did not make sense to Dr. Loftus.  According to her “Totally forgetting that you witnessed something that traumatic, and then suddenly recalling it whole decades after the fact?  Burying every detail and then having it float flashbulb into your mind, every inch intact, I don’t think so.”

She then came up with some experiments that showed she could implant false memories into the minds of 25% of her subjects.  Other researchers, such as Dr. Steve Porter, used similar techniques and discovered that they could convince up to 50% of their subjects that they had been the victim of a traumatic event long ago even though the trauma never really happened.

After proving that human memory is very fallible and that she could implant false memories, Loftus then studied the concept of repression.  Not only did she not find any empirical evidence that people can undergo trauma and immediately forget it, but she found evidence that the opposite was true.  “Most trauma survivors obsessively remember what happened to them.

Other modern researchers, such as Dr. Rofe (2008) have come to similar conclusions as Dr. Loftus.  “Contrary to psychoanalysis, most studies show that people remember their traumatic experiences and that rare cases of amnesia can be attributed to factors other than Freudian repression.

Thus, it is entirely possible that Dr. Ford told the truth as she remembered it despite the lack of collaborating evidence.  However, the work of researchers from Professors Loftus, Porter, and Rofe would suggest that the reason why Dr. Ford did not remember this event before she went to repression therapy is that the repression therapy itself caused false memories to be implanted.

If you would like more details on the problems with repression therapy, I encourage you to listen to Dr. Loftus herself at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PB2OegI6wvI.

Interesting Week in Research

Several researchers published some interesting findings last week.  Many of these had concrete recommendations for particular situations.  First, if you are a chronic worrier, you can reduce the negative effects of worrying by writing down all your worries (or making a list).  Second, if you are depressed, there is a simple non-pharmaceutical treatment (sleep deprivation) that is effective for almost half of all depressed patients.  Third, if you live in a state where marijuana is legal, you can expect to see more violent outbreaks as researchers learned that marijuana serves as a trigger for individuals at high risk of developing a psychotic disorder.  In other words, if someone has the potential for certain types of mental problems, marijuana is likely to make them paranoid.  So marijuana may trigger paranoid behavior or worse in up to 25% of the population.  Finally, if you are ever the victim of a gunshot or stabbing (perhaps from being attacked by a paranoid junkie), don’t wait for an ambulance, but find a faster way to the ER.  It can make a big difference:  “When adjusting for differences in injury severity, patients with penetrating injuries were 62 percent less likely to die when transported by private vehicle compared to EMS.”