Skeptic » eSkeptic » October 16, 2019

The Persistence of Memory…
and of the Memory Wars

You can’t keep a bad idea down. Bury it in here, and it pops out over there. Drive a stake through its shriveled heart, and it sprouts three more arms and four new toes.

Are you old enough to have a memory of the memory wars? They were sparked by a debate that began more than 30 years ago, raging at a fever heat during the 1990s, dividing along a key issue: Do people commonly “repress” their memories of traumatic experiences, memories that can then be “recovered” in therapy, often with the help of hypnosis, dream analysis, and other probing techniques?

Yes they do, claimed many psychotherapists, and they testified to that effect in hundreds of court cases in which an adult came to remember, usually in therapy, having been sexually abused years earlier by a parent, teacher, or neighbor.

No they don’t, replied most psychological scientists, whose experimental research demonstrated the power of therapeutic suggestion in creating memories that often grew in implausibility. The problem for many people who have undergone a traumatic experience, they said, is not that they forget what happened to them, but that they cannot forget; memories intrude in waking life and nightmares. Richard McNally, a clinical scientist and professor at Harvard, reviewed the evidence in his book Remembering Trauma, and famously concluded: “The notion that the mind protects itself by repressing or dissociating memories of trauma, rendering them inaccessible to awareness, is a piece of psychiatric folklore devoid of convincing empirical support.”1 […]

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