Are repressed memories a product of culture?

Harvard Magazine has an interesting article on whether it is possible to repress memories to force them into the unconscious.

As well as discussing the phenomenon, it also updates us on the challenge put forward by the McLean Hospital Psychiatry Lab: find a single account of repressed memory, fictional or not, before the year 1800 and win $1000.

It turns out, the $1000 dollars has just been awarded, although the account only sneaked past the post – it was from 1786.

The point of the challenge was because the McLean lab suspect that repressed memories, also called ‘dissociative amnesia’, are a ‘culture bound syndrome‘ – in other words, they’re so heavily influenced by cultural ideas that they are not a universal feature of the human mind and brain.

If they are a universal human feature you’d expect them to be reported throughout history, but it turns out that there are no clear reports of anyone repressing a memory, either in historical writing or in fiction, until the late 1700s.

Their paper [pdf] on culture, dissociative amnesia and their challenge, was published just before they awarded the prize, so doesn’t include the winning account, but discusses the cultural influences on this controversial concept.

As well as being enormously good fun, their challenge is an interesting way of gathering date to inform a hot topic in psychology.

Link to Harvard Magazine article on repressed memory and culture.
pdf of paper ‘Is dissociative amnesia a culture-bound syndrome?’.
Link to McClean Psychiatry Lab challenge page with entries.

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