The term repressed memory describes memories that have been blocked unconsciously because it is associated with high levels of stress or trauma. The term is derived from another term, “dissociative amnesia” which appears in DSM-IV.
The repressed memories are a controversial subject in psychology as psychologists have not reached a consensus yet. Some psychologists think it is a mechanism through which false memories are created. Others claim with the help of therapy the repressed memories might be recovered.
And there is a third category of psychologists who believe it is a cultural symptom as there is no written evidence of it before the XIX century.
Without corroborating evidence repressed memories cannot be distinguished from false ones. The advocates of the repressed memories claim the repressed memories could be recovered years or even decades after the event. The recall might happen spontaneously and could be triggered by certain stimuli related to the memory such as taste, smell or anything related to the event.
Repressed memory was first described by Freud in his essay “On the Ethology of Hysteria”.
There is some research indicates memories of traumatic incidents such as the memories of child sexual abuse could be forgotten.
Fisler and Van der Kolk’s researches proved traumatic memories might be retrieved as dissociated mental imprints. These imprints belong to the sensory and affective register of a traumatic experience. It seems the veracity of a memory correlates directly with the level of emotional significance.
A few studies proved memories of important events are highly stable and accurate over time. But the imprints of non-traumatic memories are different from the traumatic ones and are stored and coded differently.
The problem with the memories is they are not always accurate though they can be accurate sometimes. The most eloquent argument is the eyewitness testimonies after dramatic events which are known for being very unreliable.
The eyewitness testimonies are most often full of imagined details and confusions. Usually memories of an event are a combination of factual information mixed with interpretations, emotions and imagining. Therefore accepting a memory as evidence of an actual event is very unreliable.
This is maybe the strongest argument against “traumatic amnesia” along with the widely known experiment “Lost in the Mall”. The experiment was conducted by Elizabeth Loftus.
And subjects received a booklet where three accounts of real past events from the past were depicted along with a fourth account of a totally fictitious memory. More than 25% of the subjects “remembered” the fake event and even came with elaborated details.
So, what’s the truth? There’s no universal consensus but when such “repressed memories” are recovered after a long time, especially when the recovery of the memory requires special means, it is widely accepted they are most probably fake.
Professional organizations have admitted some types of therapies are associated with the risk of implanting fake memories. According to the American Psychiatric Association a forgotten memory of a childhood abuse might be remembered but it happens really rarely. The same association agrees with the possibility of fake memories.
Of, course not all the therapist are admitting there’s a risk of fake memories and claim that the idea is not tested.
Anyway, before consulting a psychologist you should better be aware of the therapies used and the risks that might be involved.