Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Literary History of Repressed Memories and the Implications for Alien Abduction

A new study in the journal Psychological Medicine suggests that repressed memories are a recent cultural concept, and not a biological universal. But how do the authors of the study come to this conclusion? By reading literature. In what one might call a case of historical literary anthropology, the researchers looked for descriptions of characters who suffered amnesia because a past event was too painful to remember. And they found that historical mentions of the concept are relatively new, dating to the era of the birth of modern psychiatry (including Freud).

The implications of such a finding would be important in a number of ways. The idea of repressed memories became central in the 1970s to an entire subculture of fundamentalist Christianity in American society, concerned with ritual Satanic abuse of children. Repressed memories became associated with child abuse in general, outside of the more specific claims of Satanic cults, "breeders," and other horrors. Repressed memories, and their recovery under hypnosis, were used in criminal investigations into past alleged abuse. By the 1990s critical voices were increasingly finding support, suggesting that hypnotic therapies for recovering memories were actually creating memories of events that did not occur or were greatly distorted. Hypnotic regression and repressed memories have largely been pushed out of use in criminal and legal investigation.

The other major role for hypnotic regression has been in alien abduction. Regression goes back to the early case, which Matheson argues is also very influential on later writings by abduction researchers, of Betty and Barney Hill. The use of hypnosis to recover memories has continued to be a common if contentious element of abductionism to the present day. Many abductees or other interested parties would note that there are a number of cases that are not recovered through hypnosis, and would argue that the phenomenon stands on its own without recovered memories.

Others might suggest that even if people don't repress memories, perhaps abductors might do so, that missing time might not be a defense mechanism but memory wiping by the abductors. Regardless, regression and memory recovery as a way to investigate missing time and abductions clearly has its roots in the notion of repressed memory from 20th century psychiatry.

The study in question suggests that the concept of repressed memories is relatively new. From this, it implies that repressed memories are not a biological universal in humans, but instead a cultural malady of Westerners starting in the late 19th Century. It is an intriguing approach, but it must be remembered that the researchers are studying cultural ideas. They suggest that the lack of a cultural notion for a malady in literature and other cultural texts is evidence that it is not a biological phenomenon. I am no psychiatrist or physician, nor am I a supporter of repressed memory ideology, but it would seem to me as an archaeologist that to go from a study of cultural texts and memes to conclusions concerning material and biological reality requires some "ground-truthing."

EDIT: New study suggests that traumatic memories don't get repressed, they are easier to remember than the good times. This certainly fits my experience. As with the story mentioned above, one could argue abductions and missing time involve mind-altering technology or methods, and not a psychological defense mechanism. But as I note, the whole thing is framed by the Freudian concept of repressed memories.

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