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The Psychology Behind Repressed Memories

By: Akshita Madireddy

Repressed memories or dissociative amnesia is thought to occur when the brain experiences something so horrific and traumatic that it seals the memory away. However, the truth behind repressed memories has been in a constant state of controversy in the scientific world. The topic was introduced in the 1800s when Dr. Joseph Bruer had a patient who was experiencing traumatic, repressed memories. Bruer and his student, Dr. Sigmund Frued believed memory suppression serves as a defense mechanism against traumatic events.

The roots of the repressed memories movement are often credited to Sigmund Freud, who was influenced by the hypnotists of his era. Freud believed that the aim of psychoanalysis was to make the unconscious conscious. Many clinicians specializing in repressed memories claimed to do just that, arguing that recovering the repressed trauma is necessary for the patient to find relief from it. Like many of Freud’s theories, this was more based on his imagination than empirical evidence, but the concept has persisted through time.

The controversy for repressed memories is based upon the fact that memory is malleable. Past studies have proven that memory can easily be changed and manipulated, resulting in a lack of data when testing the validity behind repressed memories. Researchers and scientists are now beginning to explore the connection between memories and brain patterns to determine if repressed memories are valid.

Researchers at Oregon University and the University of Oregon have discovered a biological mechanism in the brain that can block memories. The experiment consisted of twenty-four people aged 19 to 31. Participants were given unrelated and random nouns to memorize at five-second intervals. The participants were then tested until they got seventy-five percent of nouns correct. Then, researchers divided the participants into groups of 8. Group C served as a baseline. Group A was asked to look at the first word and recall the second word. Group B was asked not to recall or even think about the second word.

After scanning participant’s brains using an fMRI, subjects were retested on all the word pairs. Results from the study concluded that when participants were told not to remember, they remembered fewer words. Although not directly relating to repressed memories, this study found that the brain can restrict memories, events, and actions, stipulating that the same can be applied to repressed memories.

Furthermore, a more extensive study by Northwestern University concluded that an explanation for some repressed memories is state-dependent learning. This is a phenomenon where memories are formed when in a specific mood or drug-induced state. The best way to retrieve these memories is to bring the brain back into the state in which the memories were formed.

A study on mice at Northwestern University found that there are multiple pathways to store different types of memories, indicating that memories can be hidden away from conscious thought. In this study, mice were given a drug that stimulates extra-synaptic receptors, changing the state of their brain. After being given this drug and put into a specific room, the mice were given a mild electric shock. However, when the mice were returned to the same box the next day, they moved freely and were not afraid. This indicated that they did not remember the previous, traumatic events as they were in a different state of mind when they experienced the electric shock.

After scientists injected them with the drug, bringing the mice into an altered brain state, the mice froze as they were anticipating another shock. Although this field requires further studies and analysis, this study concluded that understanding the state of the brain during a traumatic event is vital to accessing repressed memories. Without altering the brain state to match the specific event, the brain was not able to access and utilize the memories, indicating that repressed memories are a valid phenomenon.

On the other hand, there is a debate on whether an individual’s memory is objective enough to utilize in studies. For example, if the therapist is leading the session to recover potential repressed memories, the words of the therapist can influence the patient. This can result in false recollections or distorted claims, also called false memory hypothesis. Elizabeth F. Loftus, a professor in cognitive psychology and human memory, explained how every memory can be twisted.

A study by Loftus and Julia Shaw speculated that they could distort a subject’s memory to recall committing a crime that never occurred. This trial was a success and, in the end, 70% of subjects believed they committed a crime such as assault, theft, and assault with a deadly weapon. Memory is extremely malleable and can easily be distorted, making it difficult to trust memory when hypothesizing on the validity of repressed memories.

Analyzed together, the latest research and studies on repressed memories demonstrate the controversy surrounding this topic. Increased research in this field will be vital for varying psychiatric disorders and curating treatments. Understanding the validity and psychology behind repressed memories can aid PTSD, trauma, and abuse victims. It will also aid psychologists and psychiatrists in understanding and helping their patients. Until further analysis is completed, however, this topic will remain the subject of many heated scientific debates.


1. Dodgson Lindsay. Our Brains Sometimes Create 'False Memories' - but Science Suggests We Could Be Better off This Way. Business Insider. 2017.

2. DuBois-Maahs. Why We Repress Memories. Talkspace. 2019.

3. Lis Trei. Psychologists Offer Proof of Brain's Ability to Suppress Memories. Stanford Report. 2004.

4. Northwestern University Researchers. How Traumatic Memories Hide in the Brain, and How to Retrieve Them. ScienceDaily. 2015.

5. Raypole Crystal. Repressed Memories: 5 FAQs. Healthline. 2019.


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