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No Repressed Memory

Researchers have discovered what my mother has always known: repressed memory (dissociative amnesia) is a "culture-bound syndrome" -- a creation of Western culture sometime in the 19th century. "A wide search of literary texts in European languages, Arabic, Sanskrit and Chinese has produced no convincing example of a character created before the year 1800 who suffered a traumatic event, repressed the memory and later recovered it."

Discussions - 8 Comments

A curious conclusion. First of all, the realization that both pathologies and their treatments are culturally embedded is nothing new to anthropologists. Therapy does not "work" unless all participants buy into the expectation that it will work. The same can be said for Voodoo, Santeria and a visit to the Curandera/Curandero, or to the proctologist. All treatment involves a culturally-condoned mythology, but that does nothing to discredit them.

Second, I would bet that there were also no accounts in Homer, Shakespeare, or ancient Sanskrit, of successful heart transplants. Surely that does not suggest that hearts were only "invented" during the 20th century? The notion of levels of conscious developed slowly but steadily, over the past 2000 years, but most rapidly during the 19th and 20th centuries with the co-development of philosophers like Leibniz and Spinoza, scientists like Titchener, Wundt, and James, and neurologist/practitioners like Breuer and Freud.

Finally, I have never met a therapist in my life who automatically and initially assumes that any pathology is associated with repressed memories.

Although you clearly know more on the subject than I do, Fung, your heart transplant analogy is an argument agreeing with the article, not disproving it. Again, I don’t know enough about the subject to make an intelligent argument, but "no writing of heart transplants :: no actual heart transplants" would suggest "no writing of repressed memories :: no actual repressed memeories". They point out that many (most?) other mental illnesses are documented.

But I’m curious to know: are you suggesting that ancient civilizations did in fact experience repressed memories but they weren’t recorded, or that the human psyche has been molded by its changing environment so that repressed memories are in fact a relatively new phenomenon?


First of all, as a paradoxical combination of behaviorist and humanistic psychologist, I don’t deal personally or professionally with repressed memory much at all. Our current authority on the phenomenon is Beth Loftus, and I would direct people to her writing as an example of the best and most current work on the subject

Having said that, I can respond to your questions. First, I suggested that the recency of heart transplants was not evidence that hearts did not exist previously, not transplants. By that, I meant that the technology of repressed memories may well have developed so that unconscious material could be (1) acknowledged, and (2) teased into the conscious so that both therapist and client can recognize it.

Prior to Freud’s popularization of the concept, the unconscious level of the mind was either unheard of, or only hypothesized among a very select group of philosophers and neurologists. Therefore, I am suggesting, no one was "going there" in order to discover repressed material.

In a similar way, we might suggest that, prior to the discovery of the New World, no one had gone there in order to discover Native Americans. Certainly, however, they existed before they were discovered, but it took the right zeitgeist and technology to discover what had always been there. So it might be with repressed memories as a phenomenon.

I also suggested that repressed memories might have co-developed along with a zeitgeist that was "ready" to look for them, and to accept them as an explanation. Just as with differences across cultures, so we see changes within cultures across time. Adolescent "angst" did not exist in the west until adolescence had been "discovered."

But, unless I am wrong, I think that Peter is suggesting that the culture-boundedness of the repressed memory syndrome detracts somehow from the validity of the label. I am reacting to that, suggesting that the unconscious itself may be a social construct, but that invalidates it no more than any other social construct, such as the shrinking of the middle class, the empty nest syndrome, or the value of patriotism vs terrorism.

All of these notions, heavy with value and emotion, can be traced back to times and places where they did not exist. But, that does not mean that they are not real here, today.

Fung--your citation to developing modern science goes astray, I think, in ascribing the recent discovery of repressed memories to evolving psychiatric techniques--i.e., they were always around, but we’ve just developed to the point where we can tease them out. I think the truth is more likely to be just the opposite--evolving psychiatric techniques have created the conditions (i.e., wide-spread acceptance) under which a new phenomenon (repressed--i.e. invented "memories") can rear their generally ugly heads.

J. Yu,

If I understand you correctly, then you do not disagree with my description of the process, but rather you simply doubt the validity of repressed memories.

Or, perhaps you disagree with my suggestion that psychological techniques have co-evolved with philosophy, neurology, and other cultural factors? When you say,

"truth is more likely to be just the opposite--evolving psychiatric techniques have created the conditions (i.e., wide-spread acceptance) ..." Is that your point? In other words, "psychiatry" has single-handedly forced the rest of the world (minus a few discerning cynics) to accept repressed memories? I really am not sure what you point is.

In other words, "psychiatry" has single-handedly forced the rest of the world (minus a few discerning cynics) to accept repressed memories?

It’s not as crazy as you make it sound, Fung. After all, Freud did a pretty good job of convincing the public that we have things called "ids" and "superegos," in spite of all efforts actually to locate them in the human brain.

I have very little disagreement with you, John, or with J Yu. I have three points, I guess: (1) That Freud did not do it alone, (2) it was not as sudden as pop history makes it seem, and (3)the time was right for the concept to take hold, which is another way to re-state #1.

First, Philosophers have been "analyzing" both the universe and our inner worlds (mirrors? or digital reproductions? of that universe) into concentric echelons for many, many centuries. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Plotinus, Descartes, Wundt, all have had their respective and cumulative influences on the way we think about the universe and about how we represent that universe.

Freud, or someone like him, might well have presented the notions of id, ego, and superego to the world at another time in history with very different results. He might have been stretched on the rack, or stoned outside the village wall, or merely had his papers rejected by his peers until he was forced to blog his frustrations away.

But, standing on the shoulders of Plotinus, Descartes, and Co., he served to articulate a developing idea, and the time was right.

Again, as a behaviorist, I am a bit skeptical about repressed memories, myself. I just acknowledge that both "Behaviorist" and "repressed memory" are social constructions, like many of the labels and "truths" that get flung about these days with great heat and certitude.

Thanks, Fung & Co. Interesting stuff, but out of my league.

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