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How You Recall Trauma (University Lecture)

Uploaded 12/11/2020, approx. 51 minute read

Dear students, esteemed colleagues, my name is Sam Vaknin, and this is the third lecture in the winter semester in Southern Federal University, Rostov-on-Don, Russian Federation, and the psychology track in SIAS, the Outreach Program of the CIAS Consortium.

This is the psychology track, not the finance track. These two lectures comprise a single credit.

The second lecture, so the lecture is divided in two, and the second part could be considered to be a Christmas gift from me, although many of you would probably consider it a Christmas unusual punishment.


Okay, the topic of today's lecture is false memories, false memories especially of abuse. When abused victims recall trauma, and when they recall the maltreatment and mistreatment, are their memories real? Do they really remember, or are they inventing and conjuring up confabulations and stories in order to conform to the expectations of their, I don't know, therapist, suggestions of the therapist, friends, and other family members?

This has been a controversy going on in psychology ever since the mid-1990s. There are reams, mountains of research, to show that abused memories are very often false, counterfactual, fantastic, and simply wrong. And there are mountain rages and tsunami waves of research which show that memories of trauma and abuse are actually very accurate and almost never false.

Who to believe? There are authorities, scholars of international renown and renown in both camps. Should you believe that abused victims conjure up and confabulate their memories, or should you believe that these memories were repressed, suppressed, denied, and the therapeutic process brought them up, created recall, reconstructed, and these memories?

I think the problem is, the reason for this debate and this controversy is that the word memory is ill-defined. We tend to assume that memory is a monolithic thing. It's like a slab of stone, or like a piece of wood, and either it's real or it's false.

But memories are clouds. They are not single constructs. They are not a single internal object. They are not even a process only. They are like clouds. They are diffuse. They assemble and reassemble and disassemble and reassemble. They are in constant flux and motion. They acquire additional information as time passes, as extraneous influences mitigate, ameliorate the memories, or enhance them and amplify them.

So we should distinguish between core memory and tangential or peripheral or background memory. I think core memories are immutable. They are unchangeable. They are there. They can never ever be false. They can never ever be falsified via suggestion or via hypnosis or via interference by an outsider such as a therapist.

The core memory is core for a good reason because it integrates with a person's identity to the extent that it can no longer be removed.

The second type of memory, tangential memory, peripheral memory, background memory can be falsified, can be fake, can be wrong, can negate what really happened. The facts can be counterfactual. For example, if someone said something really bad to you, if someone did something really bad to you, and consequently you were traumatized, the memory of the trauma would have a core element and a lot of tangential, a lot of peripheral, a lot of background information, bits and pieces of data that sometimes fit together cohesively and coherently and sometimes contradict each other and create ambivalence and dissonance.

The core is there. Even if it is repressed, even if it is dissociated, even if it is forgotten, it's there. It had become a part of who you are. It can never be changed or transformed in any meaningful way.

The core in the case of trauma is I had experienced pain and hurt because someone did something very bad to me. I suffered because someone said something very bad to me. This is the core. It cannot be changed.

But there's a lot of additional information, additional data that surround this core knowledge, this core realization. And they are mutable. They are changeable. They are falsifiable, falsified. They can be wrong.

Actually, in 90% of the cases, they are wrong. People, as you will see in these two lectures, tend to confabulate the vast majority of their memories, but never the core memories.

I think if we were to make this distinction, the controversy would be solved. I think the people who come up with the false memory syndrome theory, they are talking about peripheral tangential memory, not important memory, background memory.

And the people who say that trauma victims have total recall of their trauma, that their memories are real and never false. These people are dealing with another type of memory, with a core memory.

It's a little similar to long-term and short-term memory, but not entirely.


Okay. The lecture is divided in two parts.

This first part, we're going to deal with trauma memories, memories of trauma, how they are formed, how they are retrieved, what happens to them when they are retrieved, etc.

And the second lecture will deal exclusively with false memories.

What happens when these memories are wrong, counterfactual? What happens to the remember, to the person who remembers? And what happens to people around that person? And what percentage of reports of abuse are actually fiction, confabulations?

Wrong. This is the second lecture.

Before you start to listen to either of these two, I encourage you to watch my lecture on memory and identity. This was a lecture I had prepared I think a year ago to my students in Southern Federal University, in Rostov and Dom in the Russian Federation.

So there's a lecture called memory and identity. It is a prerequisite. You will not understand much of what I'm saying in the forthcoming two lectures if you don't first watch that lecture.

So please, the first thing you should do is watch that lecture. And if you survive, you're invited to come back here and watch these lectures.

Now, at the end of this first segment, I'm going to answer questions that I had received from students and faculty as to what is the difference between mentalism and mentalization.

I mentioned mentalism in my previous lecture on flashbacks, flashbacks in post-traumatic stress disorder and in complex trauma. And there I said that flashbacks should affect mentalism.

And people told me, no, you meant you meant to say mentalization, not mentalism.

Well, actually, I meant to say mentalism. And at the end of this segment of the lecture, the first segment, I will explain the difference.

I want to open with a quote. It's difficult for therapists to help trauma patients because the patients themselves cannot remember the traumatic experiences that are the root cause of their symptoms.

This is a quote which was said by Jelena Gdulovic.

Jelena Gdulovic is the Dandur Damper Professor in bipolar disease at Northwestern University, Friborg School of Medicine.

And it is the core of the problem.

How do you treat someone? How do you treat someone who is devoid of memory?

Because memory is continuity. Continuity is identity. Memory is identity.

When someone comes to you and that person has dissociated, relegated to the mental trash bin or dustbin, critical traumatic memories, how do you deal with the problem?

The thing is that as numerous scholars have demonstrated, all memories are forgotten, whether they're traumatic or not traumatic. Memories tend to be forgotten.

Fifty percent of memories are forgotten within less than 24 hours, more than 90 percent within a year. Fifty percent of memories are wrong or fallacious within the first year. Ninety percent of memories are wrong or fallacious ten years later.

The memories have a tendency, an entropic tendency, a tendency to deteriorate, and a tendency to shape shift.

And this is nothing to do with the nature of the memory, whether it's traumatic or not.

Trauma memories, on the very contrary, are very difficult to repress, very difficult to suppress because they tend to be intrusive. They tend to intrude on the trauma victim.

And so the trauma victim defends against these intrusions in a variety of ways, by developing, for example, obsessive compulsive disorders or by dissociating.


A bit of literature before we proceed, I advise you to read the book True and False Recovered Memories Towards a Reconciliation of the Debate, edited byBelly, published in 2012 by Springer. I also advise you to read the article Motivated Forgetting and Misremembering Perspectives from Betrayal Trauma Theory, which is one of my favorites, those of you who recall my previous videos.

This article was published again in 2012 by, it was written by the Prince, Brown, Chite, Fright, the famous Fright, Gold, Pezdek, and Quina.

And finally, I advise you to get hold of the attacks on the credibility of abuse survivors are not justified by research.

This was a relatively recent controversy in Australia in 2017. And Michael Salter, a famous criminologist down under, had written it to kind of dispute the assumption or the theory of false memories.

Read these three and you will have a basic, decent introduction to the whole field.

As is my habit, I would like to open with quotes from the literature.

I'm a strong believer in integrating yourself with the flow and flux of scholarly studies.

So we start with a very early article published in Cognition and Emotion, volume 2, 1988, issue 3. This article was titled Memory Bias in Recovered Clinical Depressives.

And on purpose, I'm starting with a disorder, a mental health disorder that has little to do with trauma.

It seems that the whole structure of fading or repressed memories is a universal way of treating memories.

It seems that the brain treats memories as disposable, making place, perhaps, for new memories, because ultimately, the brain is a piece of hardware with limited storage, one should assume.

Never mind how many times the brain can rewire and does rewire neurons in a variety of pathways. It's still limited.

It has to discard memories.

And so Memory Bias in Depressives.

And the article was written by Brendan Bradley and Andrew Mathews. And as I said, it was published in February, 1998, in Cognition and Emotion.

And it says, memory bias for negative versus positive adjectives was investigated in recovered primary unipolar depressives, several nonpsychiatric controls, and current depressives.

Adjectives were presented in an intentional memory task in either a self or unfamiliar other person reference condition, where yes or no judgment was made, or whether each word described the respective person.

Depressives showed a negative self-referent bias in recall, while the recovered group in the controls recalled more positive than negative self-referential material.

However, in the other person reference condition, words that refer to other people, the recovered depressives recalled fewer positives than negative adjectives, a pattern not shown by other groups, suggesting that retrieval operations in recovery are not completely normal.

It is suggested that the negative self-referent recall bias is a function of both mood and more enduring cognitive structures.

Implications of these results for vulnerability are discussed.

This was one of the first articles to point a finger at a major problem.

Our mood affects not only what we remember, but how we remember.

Our mood, related, depressed, dysphoric, happy, in between our moods affect also how we perceive others and what memories we attribute to others.

We will come to it later when we discuss false memories.

In the meantime, the American Psychological Association studied the issue of memories of childhood abuse, and there was a working group on investigation of memories of childhood abuse, and they reached five key conclusions.

Number one, controversies regarding adultery collections should not be allowed to obscure the fact that child sexual abuse is a complex and pervasive problem in America that has historically gone unacknowledged.


Okay, that's the politically correct statement. Now let's talk science.

Number two, most people who were sexually abused as children remember all or part of what happened to them.

Number three, it is possible for memories of abuse that have been forgotten for a long time to be remembered.

Number four, it is also possible to construct convincing pseudo-memories for events that never occurred.

And number five, there are gaps in our knowledge about the processes that lead to accurate and inaccurate recollections of childhood abuse, and everything that applies to childhood abuse applies to abuse in familial settings, domestic violence, inter-relational abuse in relationships, and of course, complex trauma and PTSD, CPTSD and PTSD.

How can we trust what people tell us about what had happened to them if these are the conclusions? What do these five conclusions say?

Memories are either real or they're fake, either true or false.

Great news, amazing breakthrough. We are back to square one.

Let's have a look at an article written by Richard McNally in the Department of Psychology, Harvard University.

The article is titled, Recovering Memories of Trauma, a View from the Laboratory.

And it says, the controversy over the validity of repressed and recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse has been extraordinarily bitter, yet data on cognitive functioning in people reporting repressed and recovered memories of trauma have been strikingly scarce.

Recent laboratory studies have been designed to test hypotheses about cognitive mechanisms that ought to be operative if people can repress and recover memories of trauma, if they can form false memories of trauma.

Contrary to clinical law, these studies have shown that people reporting childhood sexual abuse histories are not characterized by a superior ability to forget trauma related material.

So dissociation is a myth. Other studies have shown that individuals reporting recovered memories of either childhood sexual abuse or abduction by space aliens are characterized by heightened promise to form false memories in certain laboratory tasks.

Although cognitive psychology methods cannot distinguish true memories for false memories, these methods can illuminate mechanisms for remembering and forgetting among people reporting histories of trauma.

So we know by now that victims of trauma tend to recall the trauma and that their recall is probably accurate when it comes to the core memory.

Something had happened to them. They know that this something that had happened to them, this event or this series of events or the prolonged exposure to abuse, they know that it's bad.

So there is the emotional reactance component, the feeling that it's bad and the very fact that they had been exposed to maltreatment and mistreatment.

These two are true. They're not false. Even if they are totally forgotten and repressed when they are recalled, they seem to be true.

However, all the rest is usually false. We'll come to it in the second part of this lecture.


But before we go there, let's ask a fundamental question.

Are there any personality types that are more prone, more amenable, more vulnerable to confabulating and falsifying reports about trauma? Are there personality types or personality disorders that are more likely to invent, to confabulate or even to lie about their memory of the trauma, to create false memories, false recovered memories, or simply false memories?

So again, from the same study, a long quote, because I think it's worth it. It's about personality traits and psychiatric symptoms of memory.

McNally says to characterize our subjects in terms of personality traits and psychiatric symptoms. We asked them to complete a battery of questionnaires measuring normal personality variation.

Examples, differences in absorption, which includes a tendency to fantasize and to become emotionally engaged in movies and literature.

Depressive symptoms, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, PTSD, and dissociative symptoms.

Alterations in consciousness, such as memory lapses, feeling disconnected with one's body, depersonalization, or episodes of spacing out, derealization.

And here, I actually refer you to studies by Mann and Cloninger in the first decade of this century.

So these psychiatric symptoms, these psychiatric personality dimensions were studied.

Tendency to fantasize, depression, post-traumatic symptoms, and dissociative symptoms.

And the article continues, there were striking similarities and differences among the groups in terms of personality profiles and psychiatric symptoms.

Subjects who had always remembered their abuse were indistinguishable from those who said they had never been abused on all personality measures.

So, subject who remembered the abuse and subject who denied the abuse, they were the same as far as personality measures.

Moreover, the continuous memory in control groups did not differ in the symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress, or dissociation.

However, on the measure of negative affectivity, prone as to experience sadness, anxiety, anger, shame, and guilt, the repressed memory group scored higher than did either the continuous memory group or the control group, whereas the recovered memory group scored midway between the repressed memory group on the one hand and the continuous memory and control groups on the other.

To summarize this bit, it seems that people who deny their abuse, repress it, forget it, or dissociate it.

These kind of people are angry, sad, feel guilty, and ashamed habitually. It's a part of their personality, and they would direct this negative emotionality at the very experience of abuse. They would be ashamed of the abuse. They would feel somehow guilty of what had happened to them. Autoplastic defenses. They would become very angry. And because they are overwhelmed by these negative emotions, they dissociate.

In extreme cases, pathological cases, this, of course, would lead to personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, and at least according to Morrison and Masterson, narcissistic personality disorder.


Okay, let's continue.

The repressed memory subjects reported more depressive, dissociative, and PTSD symptoms than did the continuous memory and control subjects.

Repressed memory subjects, those who deny their abuse, also reported more depressive and PTSD symptoms than did the recovered memory subjects, who, in turn, reported more dissociative and PTSD symptoms than did the control subjects.

So we have a hierarchy here. We have people who deny their abuse, repress it, forget it, or dissociate it.

They have negative emotionality, anger, fear, shame, guilt, depression, trauma, PTSD. People who recover the memories, somehow in the middle, they have bits and pieces of these negative emotions. They forgot about the abuse, but they recall the abuse, especially in a therapeutic setting.

And people who had remembered the abuse and the trauma throughout their lives, they never forgot, they never dissociated. They've always remembered.

And of course, the control group.

So this is the hierarchy.

Finally, says McNally, the repressed and recovered memory groups scored higher than the control group on the measure of fantasy proneness.

And the repressed memory groups scored higher than the continuous memory group on this measure as well.

So people who deny the abuse, they are much more prone to fantasy, which of courselinks us immediately to narcissistic personality disorder, which is a fantasy based disorder.

Narcissists deny the shame and guilt that underlie their condition. And they do this by creating fantastic spaces in intimate relationships. They create shared fantasies in daily life. They engage and immerse themselves in shared in fantastic grandiosity.

They use fantasy to fend off the memory, the shameful, enraging, depressing, sad memory of the abuse.

Bessel van der Kolk, who is one of the most prominent scholars of trauma, had something to say about this.


But before we go there, let me read to you the conclusion of McNally in the above mentioned article.

This psychometric study shows that people who believe they harbor repressed memories of sexual abuse are more psychologically distressed than those who say they have never forgotten their abuse.

Bessel van der Kolk said that trauma affects memory in a variety of ways.

Number one, traumatic amnesia. He said that people lose the memories of the trauma experiences.

The younger the subject, the longer the traumatic event, the greater the chance of significant amnesia.

Van der Kolk said that subsequent retrieval of memories after traumatic amnesia is real. It's not false.

He cites, in his books, numerous examples following natural disasters, following accidents, in combat soldiers, in victims of kidnapping, torture, concentration camp experiences in the Holocaust, and elsewhere, genocidal victims, victims of physical and sexual abuse, people who committed murder.

He cites all these studies to show that the recollection, the recall, is not false.

Even when the initial memory, the original formed memory, had been repressed, sliced off, dissociated, when it is recalled in therapy setting, it tends to be very real because it can be correlated pretty easily with real life events.

And so this is the core memory.

You would remember that you were in an accident. You would, of course, remember if you spent time in a concentration camp. And you would remember the sadness and the anger and the shame and the guilt of having been mistreated this way.

But many, many of the small details, what I call peripheral or tangential memories, they could be false. They could be fabricated. They could and are influenced by what had happened to you after the traumatic event, as we will describe in the second lecture.

So the first interaction between trauma and memory, according to van der Kolk, is traumatic amnesia.

The second type of interaction is what he calls global memory impairment. It makes it difficult for subjects to construct an accurate account of their present and past history.

Let me quote, let me cite what he says.

The combination of lack of autobiographical memory, continued dissociation and of meaning schemes that include victimization, helplessness and betrayal is likely to make these individuals vulnerable to suggestion and to the construction of explanations for their trauma related effects that may bear little relationship to the actual realities of their lives.

So he does admit that trauma impairs memory. And when subjected to certain triggers, cues, expectations, people tend to conform. People want to gratify and satisfy significant others in their lives.

So you want to be on good terms with your therapist. If the therapist suggests that you had experienced trauma, you may go along with it. If you are not sure of your own memories, if you are memory impaired.

The third type of interaction between trauma and memory is what van der Kolk calls dissociative processes. And this refers to memories being stored as fragments, not as unitary holes. Memory is usually stored as a scheme.

So you have smells, tastes, sights, colors, sounds, people present, places, everything put together in a bubble. And if you look at the bubble, you see the entire situation. You smell, you taste, you remember, recall memory is total. And this is what we call unitary memory.

Smells are not divorced from colors. Colors are not divorced from people. People are not divorced from conversation. Conversation is not divorced from the location. That's why so many things can trigger traumatic memories, because the trauma imprints, imprints, trauma imprinting all these unitary memories.

And so van der Kolk suggests the trauma disrupts the formation of unitary memories and instead creates fragmented memories.

Finally, van der Kolk suggests that traumatic memories sensory motor organization is different. Not being able to integrate traumatic memories seems to be linked to post-traumatic stress disorder and has effects on the body.

Van der Kolk says that memories of highly significant events are usually accurate and stable over time.

Aspects of traumatic experiences appear to get stuck in the mind. That's what I call core memory, unaltered by time passing or experiences that may follow.

The imprints of traumatic experiences appear to be different from those of non-traumatic events, perhaps because of alterations in attentional focusing, or the fact that extreme emotional arousal interferes with the memory.

That's Van der Kolk.

And so he suggests that trauma memory is different to non-trauma memory.

Despite the fact that both of them undergo entropic changes, both of them fade and disintegrate and disappear and transmogrify and are influenced.

This variety of influences is still in traumatic memory because the attention, the focus coupled with the emotional reaction, emotional arousal was so intense and extreme.

There is a qualitative difference between traumatic memory and non-traumatic memory.

There are many studies that show that traumatic memories are well remembered over long periods of time.

Autobiographical memories, which are appraised as highly negative, they are remembered with a high degree of accuracy, including accuracy of peripheral tangential memory detail.

So behavioral and cognitive memory enhancing responses, such as, I don't know, rehearsing, interrogating, revisiting a memory in one's mind. These are much more likely when the memory is highly emotional.

When you've experienced a trauma, you tend to dwell on the trauma.

You try to understand, what the heck has happened to you? Why did people do to you what they had done to you?

So you keep ruminating, you keep revisiting the trauma, you keep rehashing it, you keep processing it, and the more you process it, the more you revisit the trauma, the more solid the memory becomes. Even if it's later forgotten or dissociated, it's a solid piece of evidence. It's much more solid than typical memory.

You walk in the street, you see a red car, who cares? You don't give it a second thought.

But, I don't know, your wife cheated on you. That's a traumatic memory you're likely to think, to revisit this and consider it and think about it for many, many years.

When compared to positive events, memory for negative traumatic experiences is much more accurate, coherent, vivid in detail, and this trend persists over time.

So we could say that scholarly literature, even scholarly literature that does support the construct of false memory syndrome, scholarly literature concluded that highly distressing events, they lead to subjectively clearer memories that are better accessible, more accessible than typical memories.


Now, Van der Kolk and others suggested several mechanisms, how this happens.

The first mechanism is retrieval inhibition. It's when remembering one piece of information causes us to forget another piece of information.

I refer you to studies by Anderson and Green.

The belief is that trauma kind of erases other pieces of information, and within the trauma recollection, there are pieces of information that compete because we have to arrange everything. Everything in our lives, all the memories, everything we've been exposed to, all our experiences, we arrange them schematically in what we can call narratives.

Storylines, we are storytellers, we're storytelling species. We make sense of the world, we imbue it with meaning, and we direct ourselves, we become goal oriented, we acquire purpose by telling ourselves stories, and we tell ourselves stories about traumas as well.

And so the story has to be internally consistent. Each piece has to fit the other pieces and not contradict it. Ambivalence is not tolerated, dissonance is not tolerated, but also externally consistent. The narrative has to fit in with the world, with facts, with history, with biography.

So when we do this, we discard certain types of information by remembering things which uphold and buttress the narrative, which conform to the narrative.

We make an implicit decision to get rid of other pieces of information, which challenge the narrative and undermine the narrative.

And this is called, of course, confirmation bias.

So retrieval inhibition is this.

There are two problems with this suggested mechanism.

One, the evidence for retrieval inhibition has been very problematic. It had been demonstrated in certain studies, and then there was a failure to replicate the results.

The second thing is, the mechanism doesn't meet all the criteria to support a total memory suppression, a repression theory.

This lack of evidence in this form of forgetting is particularly likely to occur in the case of traumatic experiences.

We don't know, maybe it occurs with positive experiences, for example, being overwhelmed when you fall in love. We're not sure about this.

The second mechanism is motivated forgetting. It's the intentional or directed forgetting. It refers to forgetting, which is initiated by a conscious goal to forget particular information, deliberate forgetting, or deliberate repressing of memories.

There's a problem with this mechanism as well. Motivated forgetting, the mechanism of memory repression, there's no evidence that the intentionally forgotten information becomes both inaccessible and ultimately retrievable.

Memory repression theories, they claim that if you deliberately suppress a piece of information, it becomes inaccessible, but in due time, it can be retrieved. There's no proof of that.

And finally, the third mechanism is state-dependent remembering. Memory retrieval is most efficient. When an individual is in the same state of consciousness as they were when the memory was formed, I here refer you to Radulovic, the one we opened with, she made a lot of studies on this. But there's no evidence.

Radulovic Festival worked with rats. And while quite a few human beings are rats, still, it's not one-to-one mapping. So she worked with rats. And we can't be sure that the same thing happens with the memory systems of humans.

It's not clear that human memories for traumatic experiences are typically recovered by placing the individual back in the same mental state that was experienced during the original trauma.

Let me put it this way. There's no proof that if you replicate the mental state that you had when you had experienced the trauma, it will evoke the trauma.

The mental state is not a trigger. Or at the very least, we don't have studies which support this view that the same mental state is a trigger.

Triggers are relieving, revividness, flashback of the trauma.


Okay.

Now, one very important element in memory repression theories, and even outside memory repression theories, even if you don't adhere to these theories, and you're a firm believer in false memories, is the issue of amnesia.

Dissociative amnesia. I've discussed amnesia in many previous lectures. Again, if you have spare time and you're suicidal, I advise you to watch these lectures. Just kidding. I hope you understand.

So dissociative amnesia is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Edition 5, 2013, as the inability to recall autobiographical information. That is inability that is to recall information that is traumatic or stressful in nature. Information that is inconsistent with ordinary forgetting. Information that is successfully stored and involves a period of time when the patient is unable to recall the experience and is not caused by a substance like alcohol or neurological condition and is always potentially reversible. Very critical. Potentially reversible means you could, in theory, retrieve this memory.

Again, McNally and others, they noted that there's no difference between the way the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual defines dissociative amnesia and the characteristics of a typical memory repression theory.

Take, for example, betrayal trauma theory. Betrayal trauma theory, I dedicate a whole video on my YouTube channel to betrayal trauma theory. It proposes that memories for childhood abuse are the most likely to be repressed.

Dissociative amnesia is an adaptive response because it permits a relationship with a powerful abuser whom the child is dependent upon to continue in some form.

If you forget the abuse, you can continue your relationship with the abuser.

Many abuse victims, even not children, many abuse victims, suppress, repress, refrain, lie to themselves about the abuse just so they can continue the relationship with the abuse.

Imagine that the abuser is a mother or a son. It's difficult to break. Imagine that you're economically and financially dependent on your abuser or that you have children with your abuser.

I think the same mechanism would work here.

As Pamela Fry, who developed betrayal trauma theory, she said, victims may need to remain unaware of the trauma, not in order to reduce suffering, but rather to promote survival, or I would say coexistence, continued coexistence with the abuser.

Is there repressed memory or not? Do people believe in it at all?

The American Psychological Association published an article last year, 2019. The article was authored by Otgau, Wang, Hoe, Lillienfeld, and others, and it was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, as I said in 2019, volume 149.

The article was titled, belief in unconscious repressed memory is widespread.

So here's what the article said.

We asked people from the general population whether they believed that traumatic experiences can be unconsciously repressed for many years and then recovered.

In two studies, we found high endorsement rates of the belief in unconscious repressed memory.

These endorsement rates did not statistically differ from endorsement rates to statements of repressed memory and deliberate memory suppression.

In contrast to what Brewin and others argue, belief in unconscious repressed memory among lay people is alive and well.

Finally, we contend that Brewin and his collaborators overstated the scientific evidence bearing on deliberate repression or suppression.

So it seems that people do believe that if you're traumatized, your unconscious will take over and repress the memories.

These memories are very injurious, wounding, traumatic in themselves. There is a trauma. The trauma is bad enough, but remembering the trauma is sometimes as traumatic as the trauma.

So people believe that your unconscious is kind of protecting you or defending you.

The mother of memory studies, Elizabeth Loftus, had engaged, had a dialogue, stunning, stunning piece because she discusses her life discoveries, very highly recommended. She had a dialogue with Tomasz Wieckowski. And the dialogue is titled Elizabeth F. Loftus, cognitive psychology witness testimony and human memory. It was published in last month, in November 2019, 2020, I'm sorry, in the academic journal Memory, volume 28, issue five. And so it was also published in Sharing Psychology, which is another magazine.

Anyhow, she discusses there these issues. And I recommend to have a look, we're going to mention Elizabeth Loftus's work a lot in the second lecture on false memories.


So another other studies try to ascertain or to find out whether people believe in repressed memories.

So I'm referring you to an article titled Labeled people's beliefs about memory, disentangling the effects of age and time by Kimberly Wake, James Green and Rachel Zacks. It was published in May 2020.

And here's what they say, cognitive scientists have firmly established that memory is vulnerable to decay and distortion. Yet lay people who may be required to evaluate memory evidences jurors in a jury have shown less awareness of memory fallibility.

We administer the modified version of the beliefs about memory survey, the AMS to a community sample, investigating patterns of beliefs relating to memory permanence, repression of traumatic memories, and memory reconstruction.

All their participants were more likely than younger participants to believe that traumatic memories can be repressed, while younger participants were more likely than older counterparts to believe that memory is permanent, but also malleable.

We assessed whether these beliefs were stable over time by comparing our data to a sample of data collected 25 years earlier. Although contemporary beliefs about the repression of traumatic memories and memory reconstruction were more aligned with expert opinion than those of 25 years ago, beliefs about memory permanence were not.

So people believe that memories are formed, they're permanent, and yes, the older you are, the more you believe in memory repression.

And so Olivier Dodier, Alois Glas, and Fabian Colombel wrote an article titled What do people really think of? What do people really think of when they claim to believe in repressed memory? And I'm quoting from the article, what do people really think of when they declare to believe in repressed memory?

In two studies using an integrative methodology, considering recent methodological discussions, we found that most participants reported to believe in repressed memory. They also appeared to think of an unconscious mechanism when reporting beliefs in repression, whereas they were more skeptical about deliberate memory suppression.

Participants with no memory of childhood abuse expressed more skepticism about unconscious and deliberate mechanisms than those with such memories.

Interesting. It seems there seems to be a consensus coalescing more these studies.

People believe that memories create, traumas create memories. They believe these memories are permanent. They believe they are repressed and dissociated in the unconscious.

But they don't believe that people can deliberately forget the trauma.

And so we need to check the facts.


In Advances in Psychology and Law, academic journal, in November 2020, last month, there was an article published, the accuracy of adults' long-term memory for child sexual abuse. The authors were Deborah Goldfarb, Gail Goodman, Lorraine Gonzalez, and others.

And so they say, with increasing frequency, adults are coming forward to allege that they had suffered sexual abuse in childhood. Legitimate questions are then raised in these historic cases about whether adults can accurately remember sexual acts experienced as children.

In this chapter, we review the legal arguments, especially concerning the statute of limitations and scientific findings relevant to victims' abilities to remember sexually abusive and related events that occurred years ago.

Although most memories fade with time and suggestibility about them can increase, empirical studies reviewed here show that accurate memories for traumatic, personally significant, and or taboo acts can be maintained for decades.

We also present evidence that victims often use adult language in accurately recalling childhood events, even if the adults fail to provide detailed information when questioned as children. Although false allegations of childhood maltreatment, possibly reflecting false memories, can occur, we contend that the valuable scientific evidence argues for case-specific analysis and against strict application of the statute of limitation.


Another article published in September 2020, in the academic journal Cognition, is titled The Impact of False Denials on Forgetting and False Memory, and it was written by Odger, Loewe, Manjuli, Buchan, and others.

And they say, people sometimes falsely deny having experienced an event.

In the current experiments, we examine the effect of false denials on forgetting and false memory formation.

In experiment number one, participants were presented with emotionally negative and neutral, associatively related word lists known to engender false memories.

After encoding, half of the participants had to falsely deny having seen the words, while the other half had to tell the truth.

During final memory tests, recall or source-monetary task, participants who falsely denied forgot that they discussed certain words with an experimenter.

Furthermore, the act of falsely denying reduced the formation of false memories.

These results were partially replicated in experiment two, where participants also had to relearn several words and received a second memory task.

This latter design feature diminished the effect of false denials on false memory creation.

Our experiment suggests that false denials, when you deny something that you know to be true, false denials not only have negative consequences, forgetting, but can have positive consequences too, reduction in false memories.

Very interesting. It seems that just by denying something, you create a whole train of dynamic processes in your mind which help you to forget and help you to not remember so you don't generate false memories. Denying is very powerful. You get probably emotionally invested in your denial one way or another. It's very difficult for you to retract and to deny your denial.

That's a speculation on my part.

In psychological reports, there was a report published, reports of recovered memories in therapy in undergraduate students. The lead author was Patichis, and the others were Wood, Pendergrass and others. It was published in November 2020.

They say, psychologists have debated the wisdom of recovering traumatic memories in therapy that were previously unknown to the client, with some concerns over accuracy and memory distortions.

The current study surveyed a sample of 576 undergraduates in the South of the United States. Of 188 who reported attending therapy or counseling, 8% reported coming to remember memories of abuse without any prior recollection of that abuse before therapy. Of those who reported recovered memories, 60% cut off contact with some of their family.

Within those who received therapy, those who had a therapist discuss the possibility of repressed memory were 29 times more likely to report recovered memories.

Did you hear that? If your therapist suggests that you should have a memory of abuse, even if you don't remember the abuse at all, you're 29 times more likely to suddenly remember the abuse.

That raises very important questions. When your therapist suggests to you that you should remember abuse and you remember the abuse that you had never remembered before, is what you remember real? Or is it false? Are you inventing these abuse memories to please your therapist 29 times more likely to remember abuse that you had no recollection of before?

That's shocking. These findings mirror a previous survey of U.S. adults and suggest attempts suggest that attempts to recover repressed memories in therapy may continue in the forthcoming generation of adults.

In Current Directions in Psychological Science, as an article published, Regaining Consensus of the Reliability of Memory by Brewin, Andrus, and MIX, M-I-C-K-E-S, was published in January 2020. And it says, in the last 20 years, the consensus about memory being essentially reliable has been neglected in favor of an emphasis on the malleability and unreliability of memory and on the public's supposed unawareness of this.

Three claims in particular have underpinned this popular perspective, that the confidence people have in their memory is weakly related to its accuracy, that false memories of fictitious childhood events can be easily implanted, and that the public wrongly sees memory as being like a video cover.

New research has clarified that all three claims rest on shaky foundations, suggesting there is no reason to abandon the old consensus, that memory being malleable is true, but it's also essentially reliable.

So we come to the issue of repressed memory.

It's a psychological hypothesis. It was, of course, first suggested by Jeanette Sigmund Freud, and it says that memories of traumatic events are stored somewhere. They're in a warehouse in the unconscious mind, and they are blocked from conscious recall.

Freud said that even though the person is unable to recall the memory, to access the memory, the memory still has an effect on the individual through unconscious or subconscious influences on behavior and emotional responding.

In other words, the memory has energy, and this energy manifests its dynamic. It's working inside the individual, even when the individual has no access to the memory.

And so there were in the 90s and the 80s and the 90s, there were all schools of therapy, psychotherapy, where therapists tried to provide the claims with access to these repressed memories.

In other words, to recover these repressed memories.

Now we do know that memories are spontaneously recovered, sometimes decades after the event, and the repressed memory is triggered by some smell or taste or other identifier or trigger connected to the lost memory.

Of course, it's a famous book by Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past. The whole book is the largest book ever written. It's more than a thousand pages, I think. Three thousand pages, I'm sorry.

And so it starts with a smell.

The protagonist of the book passes through a house and smell of cookies, Madame Jules cookies, wafts outside the house and the smell provokes in him a cascade of memories which he cannot block, including many forgotten memories, many dissociated memories and many traumatic memories.

The whole book is about memory, of course. Remembrance of Things Past.

According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, it is possible for adults to not remember episodes of childhood abuse, even in circumstances where there are definitive records that the abuse had occurred.

The American Psychological Association does warn, as you remember, about the possibility of constructing pseudo-memories through problematic recovered memory therapy sessions.

Memories can be accurate, but they're not always accurate.

We know that eyewitness testimony, even of relatively recent dramatic or traumatic events, is notoriously unreliable. This is Elizabeth Loftus' work.

Memories of events are a mix of fact overlaid with emotions, mingled with interpretation, filled in with imaginings, and new information that came in long after the memory had been formed.

So the memory is constantly shape-shifting and changing. It's protean.

So we can manipulate memory. We can implant false memories or pseudo-memories.

And again, I'm referring to Elizabeth Loftus because she said that some of the techniques that some therapists use to supposedly help the patient recover memories of early trauma.

So we're talking about hypnosis, age regression, guided visualization of imagery, transwriting, dream work, body work, all these things. She said they are very likely to contribute to the creation of false or pseudo-memories.

And she said that such therapy-created memories can be compelling. The people who develop them experience them as memories.

And they include so many details that these false fake pseudo-memories, they look credible to other people too.

And usually the fake memories or the false memories, they integrate many, many truthful elements.

Every corner artist is doing this.

What the corner artist is doing with the scanner, the swindler, he takes elements of truth and he embeds them in a fabric of falsity and lies.

But the elements of truth convince the victims of the corner artist that he is not a corner artist.

So we, you remember self-gaslighting? We gaslight ourselves when we try very hard to remember something which was previously inaccessible to us.

And so Loftus conducted the famous Lost in the Mall study. And the participants of the study were given a booklet.

In the booklet there were three accounts of real childhood events. And these accounts were written by family members.

But there was a fourth account in each booklet. And this fourth account was totally fictitious, never happened. And this account was an account of being lost traumatically in a shopping mall for a very long time.

So there were three real events recounted by family members. And one fake, false, wrong, counterfactual story that never happened.

And shockingly, a quarter of the subjects reported remembering, they remember the fictitious events.

And not only did they remember this event, which had never happened, they went into amazingly extensive circumstantial detail. They remembered hundreds of details about this event that had never happened. One quarter.

Later this experiment was replicated by Porter and many others, and they found out that the number is even much higher, up to one third. Porter, for example, Porter, he convinced half the participants that they have survived a vicious animal attack in childhood, an attack that had never happened. Half.

The American Psychiatric Association advises, most leaders in the field agree, I'm quoting, most leaders in the field agree, that although it is a rare occurrence, a memory of early childhood abuse that has been forgotten can be remembered later. However, these leaders also agree that it is possible to construct convincing pseudo-memories for events that never happened.

According to the Council on Scientific Affairs for the American Medical Association, recollections obtained during hypnosis can and usually do involve confabulations or pseudo-memories, and they are far less reliable than non-hypnotic recall, because you suspend, in hypnosis you suspend your judgment, you suspend your self-control, you hand it over, the locus of control is shifted to the hypnotist.

Brown and others estimate that three to five percent of laboratory subjects are vulnerable to post-event misinformation suggestions, especially by hypnotic hypnosis. They state that five to eight percent of the general population is in the range of high hypnotizability, they are highly suggestible.

Twenty-five percent of those in this range, about two percent, three percent of a population, they are vulnerable to suggestion of pseudo-memories for peripheral details, which can rise to 80 percent, up to seven percent of a population, with a combination of other social influence factors.

They conclude that the rates of memory errors is about five percent in adult studies, three to five percent in children's studies, and that the rates of false allegations of child abuse are a whopping four to eight percent in the general population.

Anyone who is a child, child psychologist, knows that at a very early phase of life, usually around age four, we begin to understand that people are capable of false memories, that people are capable of holding beliefs about the world and about themselves, which are wrong, counterfactual, simply mistaken, and this is called the false belief task.

In the theory of mind development, it means that we can attribute false belief. In other words, we can understand that other people can believe things which are not true, and the child, even at age four, understands that knowledge is formed, is a process, that people's beliefs are based on this knowledge, that mental states can differ from reality, and that people's behavior can be predicted by their mental states, and so the false belief task is a test of this capacity.

It was initially, the initial task was created by Wimmer and Perner, 1983, and so it seems that false belief tasks are fairly consistent. Most normally developing children are able to pass these tasks from age four. Most normally developed children realize that people have false beliefs and false memories about reality and about themselves. Most children, including children with Down syndrome, are able to pass this test, but not children with autism, very tellingly. 80% of children diagnosed with autism were unable to pass this test. These children can't make a distinction between mental states, knowledge, memories, beliefs, and reality. These children cannot countenance or consider even the possibility that someone else's memory, someone else's belief are unreal, wrong.

Adults also experience problems with false beliefs. For example, there's something called hindsight bias, the inclination to see events that have already happened as being more predictable than they were before they took place.

There was an experiment by Fischhoff in 1975 where adults were asked for independent assessment. They were unable to regard information on the actual outcome, so the outcome conditioned the assessment.

Also, an experiment with complicated situations, when people assess other people's thinking, adults are unable to disregard certain information that they have been given.

Another thing in child psychology is called unexpected content and so on so forth. In child psychology, children are able to understand memory errors, counterfactual beliefs. They are able to even predict in unexpected content experiments. They are able to predict that other people are very likely to have the wrong belief about something, meaning the contents of a box, for example. That's why it's called unexpected contents.

This is the end of lecture one. I encourage you to proceed to lecture two, which deals directly with false memories.


But before we go there, I owe you an answer.

What's the difference between mentalism and mentalization?

Let's start with the easy one.

Mentalization is the ability to understand the mental state, one's own mental state, someone else's mental state, and it usually underlies your behavior and other people's behavior.

So when you see someone is behaving in a certain way, you make assumptions about their mental state. It's a form of imaginative activity. It lets us perceive and interpret human behavior.

We attribute intention. We attribute mental states, desires, needs, feelings, beliefs, goals, purposes, reasons, etc. to other people. It's David Wallin. It's called thinking about thinking.

But that's a very wrong phrase, because it's not only thinking about thinking. It's creating a theory of mind. And that's why I personally prefer the concept of theory of mind, which we will come to in a minute.

And according to the American Psychiatric Association's Handbook of Mentalizing in Mental Health Practice, mentalization takes place along a series of four parameters or dimensions, automatic control, self-other, inner-outer, and cognitive-effective.

Each dimension can be exercised in a balanced or unbalanced way.

Effective mentalization requires balanced perspective across all four dimensions and motions, and motions are the most critical, far more than cognitions.


The first type of mentalization is automatic control. Automatic or implicit mentalizing is a fast-processing, unreflective process, calling for little conscious effort or input.

Whereas controlled mentalization, explicit, is slow, effortful, and demanding of full awareness.

In a balanced personality, shifts from automatic to controlled mentalization smoothly occur when misunderstandings arise in a conversation or social setting, to put things right.

Inability to shift from automatic mentalization can lead to a simplistic, one-sided view of the world, especially when emotions run high.

While, conversely, inability to leave controlled mentalization leaves one trapped in a heavy, endlessly ruminative thought mode.

And that there is self versus other mentalization involves the ability to mentalize about one's own state of mind as well as about that of another's state of mind.

Number three, lack of balance means an overemphasis on either self or other.

Number four, inner-outer. Here, problems can arise from an overemphasis on external conditions and a neglect of one's own feelings and experience.

And finally, cognitive affective. Cognitive affective are in balance when both dimensions are engaged in the mentalization process.

The mentalization process, attributing a state of mind to someone else, has to involve cognitions, thinking, and emotions. And when this happens, they're in balance.

When there is an excessive certainty about one's own one-sided ideas or an overwhelming of thought by floats of emotion, that's bad.

I prefer the term theory of mind. I prefer the term theory of mind because mentalization sounds like a kind of automatic process or like kind of a template. And that's not the case.

Every time we meet someone, we create a theory very much like scientists. We conduct experiments. We accumulate information. We try to make predictions. We falsify these predictions or verify them in an inductive and deductive use of logic.

And so it's an ongoing scientific endeavor.

And every theory is unique. We have as many people as we meet. We have theories about as many people as we meet and many people we don't meet. And then we have general theories about what it means to be human, what to expect emotionally, cognitively, behaviorally, from another human being and from ourselves.

Theory construction on the fly, the iterative process, is the core of mentalization.

And so mentalization gives a very, very wrong kind of vibe.

Fear of mind is a popular term in the field of psychology. It's an assessment of an individual human's degree of capacity for empathy and for the understanding of others.

Theory of mind is a pattern of behavior that is typically exhibited by healthy people. And it's the ability to attribute to another or to oneself mental states, as I mentioned, beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge.

Theory of mind as a personal capability is the understanding that other people have exist as separate entities with their own beliefs, desires, intentions and perspectives. And that these are different to our own, but equally legitimate.

Possessing a functional theory of mind is considered crucial for success in everyday human social interactions. It is used when we analyze, when we judge, when we infer other people's behavior.

We would feel very unsafe without a theory of mind, because then people would be utterly arbitrary, capricious, potentially malevolent and unpredictable.

Deficits can and do occur in people with autism spectrum disorders, in eating disorders, schizophrenia, in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, in certain addictions, where there's a brain damage for a variety of reasons, alcohol, narcissistic personality disorder. These are deficits, drug abuse, drug abuse.

These deficits teach us how critical a theory of mind is.


Okay, so that's mentalization. What is mentalism? Why did I use the word mentalism?

And not mentalization.

This mentalism is much wider.

Mentalism is a study of perception and thought processes, mental imagery, consciousness, cognition.

Mentalism used to be identified with behaviorists. But today, when operant responses, reflexes, became a part of scientific psychology, cognitive psychology, mentalism is widely accepted. And it has correlates in other disciplines, which I like a lot, being a philosopher by training.

I like a lot.

Because we have mentalism in psychology, but we also have mentalism in the philosophy of mind. It's the view that the mind and mental states exist as causally efficacious inner states of the person.

It's not substance dualism. In substance dualism, there's mind and body. And there are two distinct essences.

They interact with each other, but they're not the same. They are expressly not the same.

So this is dualism.

But mentalism is not the same kind of thinking. It's a dualistic kind of thinking, because dualism entails mentalism.

But mentalism does not necessarily lead to dualism, as we can conceive of internal states of mind as being essentially biologically based, for example.

And so this is in philosophy.

Then in metaphysics, mentalism is the view that metaphysics is concerned with entities of the mind, conceptualism. And that's a general orientation.

You know, we have a welcome, others. And so John Surgent called it idealism.

You know, when you look at René Descartes, John Locke, George Berkeley, idealist, David Hume, they all made the faculties of the mind, the activities of the mind, the starting point for total, all-encompassing psychological and philosophical project.

So I like to use the word mentalism, because it incorporates, it incorporates clearly mentalization and theories of mind, as well as theories of the world and philosophical dimension.

Okay, I hope I clarified this. Thank you for surviving this lecture. And the unhappy few who wish to accumulate the credit have to listen to the next lecture. The next lecture will be dedicated entirely to false memories. What are they? Are memories of abuse real, or are they pieces of fiction?

A very short question, which, which I'm sure will incur the wrath of professional victims, victim advocates, and people who make a lot of money from victims, and from perpetuating the victimhood state of people who had suffered real trauma and abuse.

Thank you very much for listening.

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