Common Myths about Memory for Trauma

by Rachel Goldsmith (UO PhD 2004) and M. Rose Barlow (UO PhD 2005)

MYTH: Memories that are “recovered” after a period of forgetting are less accurate than memories that were always remembered.
Research Says:
Memory accuracy is generally not related to memory persistence. That is, people's continuous memories are not generally more accurate than memories that are forgotten and then later remembered (e.g., Dalenberg, 1997; Freyd, 1998; Williams, 1995).

MYTH: It is rare or impossible to forget a very traumatic event.
Research Says:
Forgetting trauma is a relatively common phenomenon. Memory impairment is one established potential consequence of stress and trauma (Briere & Conte, 1993; Nemeroff, Bremner, Foa, Mayberg, North, & Stein, 2006). In a random sample of 505 individuals in the United States, Elliott (1997) reported that 72% described having had a traumatic experience, and that 32% reported some amount of delayed memory for the trauma.
There are multiple instances of corroboration of delayed traumatic memories (e.g., Chu, Frey, Ganzel, & Matthews, 1999; Herman & Schatzow, 1987; Paivio, 2001; Williams, 1994, 1995).  Research has also found that people who report recovering traumatic memories are no more suggestible than are people without reported trauma (Leavitt, 1997).
Traumatic amnesia is thought to be the most severe consequence of a continuum of awareness and unawareness for trauma experiences (Goldsmith, Barlow, & Freyd, 2005).
Betrayal trauma theory provides a cognitive, evolutionary, and emotional explanation for forgetting childhood abuse (see Freyd, 1996). In order to resolve the incompatible information that individuals on whom one must depend are acting in ways that are hurtful or abusive, individuals may isolate abuse experiences from awareness or memory in order to maintain necessary relationships with caregivers. There is evidence that individuals are more likely to forget abuse when they are abused by parents or caregivers than if they are abused by others (Freyd, DePrince, & Zurbriggen, 2001; Williams, 1994, 1995).
Studies in humans and other animals demonstrate the adverse effects of stress and trauma on learning and memory (e.g., Bremner, et al., 1995; Bremner, 1999; Kohda, et al., 2007; Uddo, Vasterling, Brailey, & Sutker, 1993).

MYTH: Debate about the veracity of recovered memories is a scientific, not political debate.
Research Says:
Research indicates that disbelieving individuals' trauma experiences and disbelieving the possibility of impaired memory for trauma are related to sexism (Cromer & Freyd, 2007; Kristiansen, Gareau, Mittleholt, DeCourville, & Hovdestad, 1995).

Of one thousand World War II soldiers returning from combat, Sargant and Slater (1941) found that 14.4% reported amnesia for  traumatic experiences, a response that was not met with skepticism.  Southwick and colleagues (1997) reported that 70% of the Gulf War veterans in their study forgot and later recalled a memory of combat.
The phenomenon of forgetting sexual abuse is more controversial, which suggests that context influences whether people believe that people can forget and then later remember trauma.

MYTH: Unscrupulous or misguided therapists can implant false memories in their clients.
Research Says:
Although some people have proposed that psychologists are primarily responsible for encouraging the formation or recovery of memory for previously forgotten traumatic information, research by Elliott (1997) demonstrates that the most likely trigger for people to remember trauma was some type of media presentation, such as a movie or a TV show. Elliott found that psychotherapy was the least common trigger for recalling a traumatic experience.

MYTH:  There are very few substantiated cases of recovered memories that turned out to be accurate
Research Says:
There is an on-line record of substantiated incidents of recovered memories.  Run out of Brown University, the Recovered Memory Project includes many types of cases, all of which have evidence to support the accurate nature of memories that were forgotten, then later remembered.  The archive includes criminal court cases, clinical cases and academic studies, and other instances of corroboration.  Most cases include more than one type of corroboration, which could include confessions or guilty pleas, multiple eyewitness accounts, and other types of evidence, as well as judicial judgments.     
The Recovered Memory Project is here:
The Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence, a nonprofit organization of scientists, clinicians, legal scholars and public policy analysts, has compiled a list of scientific articles that examine the prevalence of dissociative amnesia or delayed recall following trauma.

Bremner, J. D. (1999).  Does stress damage the brain?  Biological Psychiatry, 7, 797 – 805.
Bremner, J. D., Randall, P., Scott, T. W., Capelli, S., Delaney, R., McCarthy, G., & Charney, D. S. (1995). Deficits in short-term memory in adult survivors of childhood abuse.  Psychiatry Research, 59, 97 – 107.
Briere, J., & Conte, J. R. (1993).  Self-reported amnesia for abuse in adults molested as children.  Journal of Traumatic Stress, 6, 21 – 31.
Chu, J. A., Frey, L. M., Ganzel, B. L., & Matthews, J. A. (1999).  Memories of childhood abuse: Dissociation, amnesia, and corroboration.  American Journal of Psychiatry, 156, 749- 755.
Cromer, L.D., & Freyd, J.J. (2007). What influences believing child sexual abuse disclosures? The roles of depicted memory persistence, participant gender, trauma history, and sexism. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31, 13–22.
Dalenberg, C. J. (1997). The prediction of accurate recollections of trauma.  In J. D. Read & D. S. Lindsay (Eds.), Recollections of Trauma: Scientific Evidence and Clinical Practice (pp. 449-453).  New York: Plenum Press.    
Elliott, D. M. (1997). Traumatic events: Prevalence and delayed recall in the general population. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 65, 811-820.
Freyd, J. J., DePrince, A., & Zurbriggen, E. (2001). Self-reported memory for abuse depends on victim-perpetrator relationship. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 2, 5-16.
Freyd, J. J. (1998) Science in the Memory Debate. Ethics & Behavior, 8, 101-113.
Freyd, J. J. (1996) Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Goldsmith, R. E., Barlow, M. R., & Freyd, J. J. (2004). Knowing and not knowing about trauma: Implications for psychotherapy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 41, 448-463.
Herman, J. L., & Schatzow, E. (1987). Recovery and verification of memories of childhood sexual trauma.  Psychoanalytic Psychology, 4, 1 – 14.
Kohda, K., Harada, K., Kato, K., Hoshino, A., Motohashi, J., Yamaji, T., Morinobu, S., Matsuoka, N., & Kato, N. (2007). Glucocorticoid receptor activation is involved in producing abnormal phenotypes of single-prolonged stress rats: A putative post-traumatic stress disorder model. Neuroscience, 148, 22-33.
Kristiansen, C. M., Gareau, C., Mittleholt, J., DeCourville, N. H., & Hovdestad, W. E.
(1995, August). Socialpsychological factors sustaining the recovered memory
debate. Paper presented at the 103rd Annual Conference of the American Psychological Association, New York.
Leavitt, F. (1997). False attribution of suggestibility to explain recovered memory of childhood sexual abuse following extended amnesia.  Child Abuse & Neglect, 21, 265 – 272.
Nemeroff, C.B., Bremner, J.D., Foa, E.B., Mayberg, H.S., North, C.S., & Stein, M.B. (2006). Posttraumatic stress disorder: A state-of-the-science review. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 40, 1-21.
Paivio, S. C. (2001). Stability of retrospective self-reports of child abuse and neglect before and after therapy for child abuse issues.  Child Abuse & Neglect, 25, 1053 -1068.  
   Sargant, W., & Slater, E. (1941). Amnesic syndromes in war.  Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 34, 757-764.
   Southwick, S. M., Morgan, C. A., Nicolaou, A. L., & Charney, D. S. (1997). Consistency of memory for combat-related traumatic events in veterans of Operation Desert Storm. American Journal of Psychiatry, 154, 173 – 177.
Uddo, M., Vasterling, J. J., Brailey, K., & Sutker, P. B. (1993). Memory and attention in combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 15, 43 – 52.
Williams, L. M. (1994). Recall of childhood trauma: A prospective study of women's memories of child sexual abuse.  Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 62, 1167-1176.
Williams, L. M. (1995). Recovered memories of abuse in women with documented child sexual victimization histories.  Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8, 649 – 673.


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