Reflections on various theories – The recovered memory debate, part II

Like I promised, I´ll try to clarify my own position in the memory wars. Let me first say that I don´t have a definite opinion. All that I have to evaluate the different positions floating around out there – are my own experiences. And the stuff I read for my paper. There are many different opinions and positions, and I cannot deal with all of them. So what I will do first is look at the two extremes.

Two extreme positions

Extreme No. 1) It is impossible to recover any accurate memories of traumatic events, repression doesn´t exists, dissociative disorders are iatrogenic. There are no hidden memories secretly influencing us.

Extreme No. 2) All our memories are still somewhere there in our unconscious, but they might not be accessible due to repression or dissociation. If you feel like you might have been abused as a kid (and repressed the memories) it is probably true. Every image that comes up is taken at face value.

I feel that my experiences contradict both extremes. It is very obviously possible to develop false memories (and even worse: They don´t necessarily have to be iatrogenically induced!) – but it is also possible to forget about bad experiences only to suddenly remember them years later.

Adherents of Extreme No. 1 might argue that me not thinking about my experience for years was nothing more than ordinary forgetfulness. We cannot be conscious of all our memories all the time, after all. It seems to make a difference to me, though, if you don´t think about the fact that you liked chocolate ice cream in fifth grade for years, or if you think nostalgically about your childhood friend without being remotely aware that, aside from being your best friend, she was also quite a bully. I was thinking of her, I hadn´t forgotten her, but my image of her was remarkably distorted or at least very one-sided. Now that I have my memory back, I don´t think about the incident every day. I rarely think about it at all. But when I think about Chasey, my memory of the incident plays a crucial part in how I think of her. There is a difference between not thinking about something and not being aware that it ever happened.

Another thing is that even while I was still idolizing her, the lessons I had learned from the incident I had forgotten were influencing me. A while before I remembered it I was sitting in a park with some friends. I had taken off my shoes because it was a hot day. A guy our age started to yell insults at us, then came over. I immediately grabbed my shoes – in order to protect them. I didn´t question my action, it was just something I did. I felt a rush of anxiety when he approached us and my reaction was: “Don´t let him take your shoes, or you cannot insult him back anymore.” The fear that he could take something that belonged to me as a “hostage”, thus leaving me at his mercy, seems to be very much in line with my experience of being blackmailed into saying stuff.

So, judging by my experiences, both extreme opinions are not tenable. Our memories are not all hidden somewhere in our unconscious, crystal clear and complete. They can easily be conflated with false memories. Some memories can be entirely false. But we can be unaware of ugly past experiences and still be influenced by them while having a completely distorted picture of the people involved in these events; and we can regain memories of those experiences.

How memories might be “forgotten”

So how are memories of bad events forgotten? There are basically two theories: 1) Repression. 2) Dissociation.

Both concepts are frequently conflated, which is unfortunate, because from what I´ve read I conclude that they are actually quite different things. My thoughts about this are based on Henri Ellenberger´s The Discovery of the Unconscious and German psychologist Lydia Hantke´s essay Trauma und Dissoziation (Trauma and Dissociation). Hantke traces back the theory of dissociation to Pierre Janet, a contemporary of Freud.

From what I have gleaned through these works, Janet believed that we are constantly busy integrating everything that happens to us (also emotions) into our consciousness. Sometimes, though, certain emotions like intense fear might overwhelm our capacities of integration.

Now, there are two slightly different options again. As far as I understood Janet, he thinks that our memories of the event that overwhelmed us are split off, meaning that our future consciousness is narrowed. Dissociation, in his view, means that the parts split off develop an ability to integrate experiences as well.

Another theory I frequently encounter is that in a state in which we are overwhelmed, we can no longer process all the information; which means that much of the information about the overwhelming situation never enters our consciousness. In this theory, this process is what is called “dissociation”.  The result is that we have no explicit memory of the event. We do, however, pick up information unconsciously which is stored as implicit memory. The implicit memory, however, is not a little piece of consciousness. It simply isn´t conscious.

Now for repression. The way Ellenberger and Hantke describe it, Freud seems to have seen shame as the driving force behind repression. We push events or feelings out of our consciousness when we feel ashamed of them or cannot accept them as part of our self-image.

So where is the big difference?

The big difference is that in the two dissociation theories the ugly event/feeling never fully entered our consciousness. The splitting off happened during the event. In the case of repression, however, we are fully aware of the event until we decide to repress the memory of it. At least in the second dissociation theory, a memory is never even formed

So what do those theories imply for recovered memories?

In the case of repression, an explicit memory of the event has been formed at some point, though, according to repression theory, it is inaccessible due to resistance. This theory is compatible with the idea that one might recover an explicit memory, that is, a narrative.

In the second case of dissociation, no explicit memory has ever been formed, which suggests that any narrative or memory suddenly popping up would be false. I´m cautious to judge that, though, because we do not know terribly much about how the brain works. Which is also why I´m stunned at the militance found in the memory debate.

So, how about Janet´s version of dissociation theory? It seems to be a bit different from the theory that says that our consciousness gets cut off from information during trauma. Janet is talking about a splitting of consciousness during overwhelming events. The result of this is that our normal consciousness is narrowed, and the memory, or the information collected during the event, carries a little bit of consciousness of its own.  So – is this memory, too, merely an implicit one, or is there an explicit memory stored somewhere that never entered our consciousness? This model does differ from the repression theory, since in the case of repression, the memory has originally been part of our consciousness, and it is not split off, but it is stored away into a different entity, the unconscious. I guess in the case of repression, our consciousness is not narrowed, but that is just me trying to distinguish the two theories. So, basically repression means to actively push away an uncomfortable memory, and dissociation by Janet´s definition means that your consciousness is shattered and that you develop, if not a multiplicity of selves, then at least a more than one consciousness, though there is still one main consciousness and one or more fragments.

I hope I have correctly depicted the respective theories. I´m merely an interested layman with some personal involvement.

I believe some of the recovered memory skeptics hold the opinion that repression and splitting of consciousness does not exist while believing that there can be a blockade of information during trauma, leading to memories never being formed. I wonder if, under circumstances like these, it would be possible to not know the trauma has ever taken place. They might argue that while a person might have amnesia for certain parts or even all of her car accident, she would always know she´d been in one. It would be part of the narrative, the plot of her life, just the way I knew I had somehow walked from my home to Chasey´s place even though I don´t remember how (which is quite normal because it is probably fairly insignificant)? Would she wake up in hospital and be aware that she has had a car accident even though she doesn´t remember any of it?

That type of knowledge is possible, I believe. I remember having an alcohol blackout three years ago. I only remember bits and pieces, obviously, but I was never unconscious. I lost the plot several times throughout the blackout, but whenever I came to, I knew exactly where I was and what was going on, even though I had no memories of the immediate past.

But what, though, if the person woke up in hospital knowing nothing? She will be told she has been in an accident, she´ll be shown the car wreck, but for all she knows she might as well have been abducted by aliens. Nothing about the story feels familiar to her. Still, though, that way she´d always know something has happened to her. She would wake up in hospital knowing something is wrong, and she would later remember that moment, it would be part of her personal history. How about it, though, if the trauma had never been acknowledged or noticed for whatever reason? If we´re talking about a kid, aren´t there possibilities that the disorientation, the confusion, the fear could somehow be excluded from the personal narrative? Exist as some confused, strange fragments of memory that sometimes, rarely come up and somehow just don´t seem to fit the picture?

I have no idea. Basically, I´m just trying to sort out the various thoughts I have about this subject. I might go on at some other point, I feel I´m getting stuck here at the moment.

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