Research Turns Memory Theory on Its Head


Feb 21, 2007

Newswise — Contrary to conventional thought dating back to Freud, victims of traumatic events do not subconsciously repress the memories but rather recall them with a clarity reminiscent of reality.

That startling finding comes from a five-year-study conducted by researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax. The same study, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) concludes that people have much more difficulty recalling pleasant memories than they do unpleasant.

Led by Associate Professor Steve Porter, of Dalhousie’s Psychology Department, the research team’s findings will be of significant interest, particularly within the criminal justice system where victims’ distant memories of assault, abuse and violence are often discounted based on ideas associated with memory repression.

In the late 19th century, Sigmund Freud developed his famous theory that, to cope with horrific events, people repress memories so their painful effects won’t have to be experienced over and over again.

Dr. Porter’s research suggests the opposite; that victims can recall details of traumatic events such as physical or sexual assault with as much clarity as the day they happened.

“If Freud was right, these would be the kind of events that people would try to push away,” says Dr. Porter. “People tried to push them away but were unable to do so. They were, in fact, haunted by what they experienced.”

On the other hand, the same study found people’s recall of pleasant memories — weddings, births, awards — wasn’t nearly as good.

“The positive memories changed dramatically and began to look very little like the event itself,” says Dr. Porter. “So, if people start to tell you about the good ol’ days, you might want to take that with a grain of salt.”

The theory that memory of traumatic events is repressed has been a staple of criminal defense lawyers for decades. Judges and juries, wittingly and unwittingly subscribing to the conventional wisdom would tend to doubt victims’ recollections.

"We can expect that traumatic criminal experiences can be recalled quite reliably over time," says Dr. Porter. "That doesn't mean there won't be some level of distortion. But the central details will be recalled quite well."

The study, to be published in the journal Psychological Science in May, took place over five years. In 2000, researchers recorded the memories of participants concerning both a traumatic and positive memory. The participants were re-interviewed three months and five years later.

Dr. Porter’s research group included senior graduate student Kristine Peace, graduate students Marcus Juodis and Sabrina Bellhouse, and honours students Leanne ten Brinke and Laura England.