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You might have heard about repressed memories on TV, but those memories aren’t always what they seem.
*Content warning: description of school shooting

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[♩INTRO ].

Alright, think back with me for a moment -- say like, ten years back. Ten years ago today, do you remember exactly what you were doing?

I definitely don't, and neither do most people. We might vaguely remember what life was like, but most of our daily memories from that long ago are just … gone. Still, some psychoanalysts would argue that you might have uncomfortable memories from that day hiding in the back of your mind, waiting to be rediscovered -- also known as repressed memories.

That used to be a really popular idea, but now, we know these memories aren't always what they seem. The idea of repressed memories is sometimes thrown around in pop psychology, but it has a pretty specific definition. For one, a repressed memory isn't something you just haven't thought about for years, like your first elementary school art project.

And it's also not just forgetting something, like how you probably can't remember what you had for breakfast three weeks ago. I can't remember what I had for breakfast this morning. The real idea of a "repressed memory" comes from everybody's favorite misguided psychoanalyst,.

Sigmund Freud. His idea was that, if you have thoughts or experiences that you don't want to deal with consciously -- like memories of being abused - they'd get pushed into your unconscious mind. And Freud argued that everyone has all kinds of desires, motivations, and memories just waiting to be uncovered.

Back around the 1980s, it was common for therapists who were into Freud's ideas to suspect that their patients had repressed memories of trauma or abuse. But unfortunately, some therapists might have been a bit overzealous in finding trauma when it wasn't actually there. Many used guided imagery techniques with their patients, like imagining what a hypothetical abuse scenario might look like, to help them recall those supposedly hidden memories.

Which sounds horrible, and today isn't seen as a useful therapy for dealing with abuse. Aside from... sounding pretty unpleasant, it also looked a whole lot like how you can create false memories. Sometimes people can be bad at distinguishing their real memories from things they just imagined happening to them -- like if you think you remember something from when you were a baby because your family has told the story tons of times.

So telling people to imagine experiences makes them more likely to misremember them as true. For patients who had been abused, it was great that therapists were finally acknowledging how common it was and taking them seriously. But if a patient comes to your office saying they've never been abused, you definitely don't want to accidentally convince them they were.

Thanks to that imagery technique, it's likely that many supposedly repressed memories from around then were actually just things suggested by well-meaning therapists. And research supports that idea. Some studies have shown that people who believe they've recovered repressed memories are more likely to get false memories.

For example, in a paper published in 2000 in Psychological Science, researchers studied 57 women. Some had always remembered abuse from earlier in their lives, but others had either supposedly recovered memories of abuse or suspected they had repressed memories. They had all these people and a control group -- people who knew they had never been abused -- take a memory test.

It involved remembering lists of related words, and in other research, most people end up creating false memories and accidentally remembering words that aren't on the list. The results showed that people who had always remembered their traumatic memories were about as likely as the control group to have false memories of the missing words. But those who had recovered memories were about 20% more likely to have the false memories from the lists.

And this phenomenon happens with more significant events, too, not only word lists. One study, published in 1999 in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, looked at 24 people and found they could induce false memories of some unusual life events, like breaking a window with your hand, or getting stuck in a tree. They did this using the same guided imagery technique that therapists would use in finding recovered memories.

Another study from 1989 surveyed about 130 children whose school was attacked by a shooter. Several children remembered being at the scene of the shooting, but weren't actually anywhere near it. One boy even remembered walking to school, turning back when he heard shots, and seeing someone lying on the ground … except, his parents confirmed they were all on vacation that day.

Now, it is important to remember that all this research is correlational. No one researches repressed memories by randomly assigning some people to experience trauma to test their memory of it. So we can't say repressed memories are always false, but we do know it's really hard to demonstrate they're reliable -- and for most people, it's really easy to get a false memory.

Without corroborating evidence, it can be hard to distinguish a true recovered memory from a false one. Still, when it comes to trauma and abuse, most people have continuous memories of it, so it's important to take them seriously. And even if someone can't prove their repressed memories are real, having traumatic, troubling, or stressful thoughts is a good reason to talk to a professional, anyway.

No matter how much the internet and TV shows have to say about repressed memories, like most of Freud's ideas, they're definitely not as straightforward as they sound. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych. For more on the science of memory, you can check out our video about how your memory can be tricked. [♩OUTRO ].