david_g_myers's picture
Professor of Psychology, Hope College; Co-author, Psychology, 11th Edition

In today's Freud-influenced popular psychology, repression remains big. People presume, for example, that unburying repressed traumas is therapeutic. But do we routinely exile our painful memories? "Traumatic memories are often repressed," agree 4 in 5 undergraduates and members of the American and British general publics (in recent surveys reported by a University of California, Irvine research team).

Actually, say today's memory researchers, there is little evidence of such repression, and much evidence of its opposite. Traumatic experiences (even witnessing a loved one's murder, being terrorized by a hijacker or a rapist, losing everything in a natural disaster) rarely get banished into the unconscious, like a ghost in a closet. Traumas more commonly get etched on the mind as persistent, haunting memories. Moreover, extreme stress and its associated hormones enhance memory, producing unwanted flashbacks that plague survivors. "You see the babies," said one Holocaust survivor. "You see the screaming mothers. . . . It's something you don't forget."

The scientist-therapist "memory war" lingers, but it is subsiding. Today's psychological scientists appreciate the enormity of unconscious, automatic information processing, even as mainstream therapists and clinical psychologists report increasing skepticism of repressed and recovered memories.