The romantic literature of recovered memories

The New York Times discusses a recent challenge laid down by psychologists skeptical of claims of recovered memories: find a single account of repressed memory, fictional or not, before the year 1800.

The researchers claim that the earliest account is from the 1782 novel Dangerous Liaisons and have published their findings in the journal Psychological Medicine.

They suggest that the idea of a recovered memory is a cultural invention and people are likely to arrive at the clinic with trauma and memory problems already shaped by these ideas.

The challenge has revisited a long-standing and heated debate over the reality of recovered memories that first exploded in the 1980s.

At the centre of the storm were people who claimed to have recovered memories of childhood abuse, often after hours of unusual or maverick forms of therapy.

The sheer numbers of people claiming to have uncovered repressed memories of abuse led some psychologists to question the reality of many of these memories and doubt that a healthy person could effectively repress whole episodes of their life, only to have them return later.

Researchers began to investigate the psychology of recovered memories in the lab and found evidence that false childhood memories could easily be induced in healthy participants [pdf] but also that memories could be deliberately ‘forgotten’ to some extent [pdf].

In response to the literary challenge, other researchers have offered earlier examples, but the challengers have dismissed them as not fitting their criteria adequately.

How much culture affects the expression of both normal and disordered thinking is currently a poorly-understood area and will probably become a major force in psychology over the coming decades.

Link to NYT article ‘A Study of Memory Looks at Fact and Fiction’.
Link to PubMed entry for the Psychological Medicine paper.

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