Debunking memory myths

Human memory has always been a somewhat mysterious phenomenon that experts have tried to understand for many years.

In fact, scientific research into how memory works began more than 100 years ago and many theories have come and gone about memory since that time.

As you undoubtedly have experience, memory tends to shift and change over time and two people will often remember identical situations quite differently. Still, people are often quick to assume that memory is somehow infallible, reliable or easy to evaluate.

Contrary to some pop culture portrayals, experts now know that memory does not work like a video recorder. Once an event is experienced it does not get stored in archival fashion without change or erosion over time.

Every time we recall an event, it is in fact a reconstruction and one that is usually a little bit different each time.

In psychiatry, memory of trauma has been a recurring topic of discussion and research. Movies often show psychiatrists assisting their patients as they attempt to retrieve repressed memories.

In these stories, the patient is usually experiencing some sort of upset in present life that the therapist believes is the result of some re-surfacing of childhood trauma or abuse long buried in the psyche.

This practice of assuming traumatic amnesia and attempting to help a person remember is unfortunately very unreliable and controversial for a variety of reasons.

First, it is problematic since we know that no memory is ever fixed or immune to the influences of time and new experiences. Even flashbacks experienced by individuals with post traumatic stress disorder are not necessarily exact reproductions of the original experience.

Also, false memories can be quite easily created. If you experience a situation and then imagine it in different ways, it can become quite difficult over time to differentiate between the actual event and the details you imagined. When therapists attempt to help a patient recover a memory, it is quite easy to unintentionally plant a false one.

If someone believes something traumatic happened to them, it can present as a strong memory even though it may be false. This is often enough to elicit powerful emotions.

Emotionality doesn’t equal veracity. Just because a particular memory is accompanied by intense emotion, does not mean it is reliable or true.

In spite of the shifting nature of memory, researchers now know that we are not likely to have traumatic amnesia. During traumatic events, the brain releases a stress hormone that strengthens the memory of the experience – which is contrary to the theory that our brain will repress a memory that is traumatic.

Repetition also strengthens memory. The more often a person experiences the trauma – as in cases of prolonged abuse – the more likely he or she is to remember it.

People who experience trauma will likely remember it, but may not remember all of the details. This is not amnesia, but a normal process as we tend to focus on the central features of an event at the expense of peripheral details. For example, it is common for victims not to remember the face of their attacker because their focus was on the gun in his hand or the task of escaping unharmed.

Childhood amnesia is also not the same as traumatic amnesia. Most people remember very little of their lives before the age of four or five and this does not mean they have experienced trauma or abuse.

For those who are abused during this time, but can’t remember it, it is possible they will never fully remember, but it is still possible to deal with present problems which may or may not have stemmed from childhood trauma.

Finally, non-disclosure does not equal traumatic amnesia. Many victims of abuse choose not to tell anyone about it for a variety of reasons. This doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t remember the events. Evidence does show that traumatic events are highly memorable and seldom forgotten entirely even if details change or blur over time.


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