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Recovered Memories

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Unfortunately, our memory is not like a video recorder and limited understanding of exactly how
memory works has given rise to disagreements. None of these disagreements have been more vigorous
than the battle over recovered memories. Buried memories of traumatic events can be recovered - but
how reliable are they? Are traumatic memories repressed through a process of dissociation? Or, do
we simply forget? Jonica Newby explores the latest in thinking on recovered memories.

NARRATION

Here's a scenario. A girl is 29 years old. She's watching a movie, and suddenly she has a flashback
... she's seven, at home with her grandfather... later more memories emerge. She was abused as a
child. And she had no memory of it ... until now.

Dr Jonica Newby

So what happened to her memory over all this time? Was it repressed ... is it false ... or was it
simply mislaid? It's been a source of at times acrimonious academic debate, but with new ideas
emerging, it's worth taking a fresh look at recovered memories.

NARRATION

Before we dive in, a quick refresher on what memory is. Because one thing it isn't is a
video-recorder. First, we Encode. An event happens, we hold some details in short term memory. Then
there's Consolidation. Important bits are mentally rehearsed, then stored in long term memory -
which effectively means little groups of neurones hold a perception of the event. Then Retrieval.
The little neurones are activated, the perceptions are integrated ... and reconstructed and enter
consciousness. This newly "rehearsed" memory is then re-encoded - either just as it was before OR
altered, sometimes dramatically - and stored. So something interfered with the process here - but
what? There-in lies the big debate.Psychiatrist Warwick Middleton specialises in patients with
memories of extreme trauma. He believes what happens is a process known as dissociation and
repression.

Professor Warwick Middleton

Dissociation is a mechanism in which there is a disruption in the usually integrated processes of
consciousness, memory, identity and perception such that a person's identity may be split,
fractionated or put behind a, if you want to use a computer analogy, a firewall.

NARRATION

He sees it in combat veterans.

Professor Warwick Middleton

It was Sargant and Slater in 1940 who analysed a thousand evacuees from, from Dunkirk. A hundred
and forty four actually had partial or complete amnesia and the ones that were most likely to have
most extreme amnesias were also the ones that had the most severe traumas.

Dr Jonica Newby

Do they get those memories back?

Professor Warwick Middleton

Some of them do.

NARRATION

And that's where repression and later recovery of those memories comes in - or to use professor
Middleton's preferred term dissociative amnesia.

Professor Warwick Middleton

You talk about the thousand yard stare.

NARRATION

But Professor Richard Bryant, who also works with war veterans as a prominent researcher of post
traumatic stress disorder, disagrees. He says the battle situation is better described as largely a
failure to encode.

Professor Richard Bryant

In a case of real trauma like combat, you know when there are bombs exploding and people shooting
at me then that's really going to narrow my attention enormously. So it's very, very understandable
that people will have reduced encoding of it.

NARRATION

Just think of a parachute jump ... for the first time. Afterwards, few remember anything much.

Professor Richard Bryant

That's not necessarily dissociation in the sense that I have a fault in my remembering. A lot of it
I just didn't encode in the first place.

NARRATION

And our memory's need for narrative will sometimes try and fill in the gaps

Professor Richard Bryant

I saw a person years ago who had a severe brain injury in a car accident and he was knocked out for
nearly a month. About a year later, the first time they put him in a car, he just panicked and was
flooded with memories of the accident. Now this man did not remember anything about what happened
so how could he have memories? When I spoke to him, the pictures that were coming into his mind was
of himself lying mangled in the car. And what these pictures were, were actually a reconstruction
of photographs of his mangled car in the local newspaper except he had put himself into that
photograph.

Dr Jonica Newby

But failure to encode would not account for the longstanding memory loss in our scenario - not when
the abuse was repeated.

NARRATION

It could of course be a false memory - unintentionally implanted by sloppy therapy. And it was a
bizarre spate of these - paraded as repressed memories - that set off the so called Memory Wars of
the 80's and 90's.

Professor Warwick Middleton

Yeah, the issue of false memory actually coalesced into probably what was the most acrimonious and
polarizing debate in psychology psychiatry in the last century.

NARRATION

Unfortunately, the debate became either or: either you believed in dissociation and repression - or
that traumatic memories were so powerfully laid down, they were unforgettable - so recovered
memories must be false.

Professor Richard Bryant

I think at that point we got where the baby did get thrown out with the bath water where because we
said there's no evidence that repression exists now, we got to the point where saying well not only
does repression not exist but also the idea that somebody can actually have a memory, then forget
it, and then maybe have it again, that also doesn't exist.

NARRATION

So to be clear - recovered memories of childhood abuse can and do happen - a notion that got
muddied at the height of the Memory wars. The question remains though - how? Professor Middleton
says this is where the Dissociation Theory really comes to the fore.

Professor Warwick Middleton

I'm talking about compartmentalizing trauma so that you actually create a mechanism for containing
the memories and feelings that go with a traumatic event such that it doesn't overwhelm you in the
present. So you can actually get somebody who's compartmentalised, you know, the good daddy from
another compartment behind another firewall which contains the memory of the incestuous abuse. And
the two states may be relatively impervious to each other, at least for a time.

NARRATION

But a number of researchers are now working on another explanation. That is - that in many cases,
the abused kids simply forgot. Huh?

Professor Richard Bryant

Many will say that at the time they did limit their encoding and they did it very strategically. I
don't want to be aware about what this person's doing to me right now so I will engage in fantasy,
I will distract myself. But that doesn't' block it out necessarily. After that, he might've left
the room and then there's the consolidation phase. Now often at that point the person will tell me
I don't want to think about it then I will distract myself again. But they still know that things
happened. After that, as time goes on both in the consolidation phase and subsequently I'm just not
rehearsing it, because I don't want to. And so I can go through years and years and years and never
think about it. And then something tweaks and then hell yeah, that did happen to me. And then
they'll remember it. Now what was that mechanism? Was it repression? I don't think so. In most
cases I've seen I think it is often deliberate avoidance over many, many years, because people
don't want to think about something really really unpleasant.

NARRATION

So what are we to make of all this? In the end - does it just come down to a terminology dispute -
is there so much difference between dissociation and repression versus forgetting that the debate
still matters?

Dr Jonica Newby

There are some professors who say dissociation doesn't exist.

Professor Warwick Middleton

Yeah. There are some who say that. It's actually one of the phenomena in psychiatry that's got the
longest literature really.

NARRATION

Although the word "repression" does seem to be dropping out of favour.

Professor Warwick Middleton

I've given up trying to get a clear agreed definition of repression anymore because the waters have
been so muddied.

Professor Richard Bryant

My reaction to the whole notion of dissociation is that it's really not advancing the field. It's
just too big and too vague. So I think we have a clinical responsibility as well as a scientific
responsibility to understand what really is the mechanism. Then I think we can start to develop
better treatments.

NARRATION

And does this help our girl deal with her past? Maybe not. But it is worth knowing there's more
than one explanation for recovered memory. After all, memory is perception and perception becomes
memory.