Recovered Memories 101

What Are Recovered Memories?

Due to the way trauma is stored in the brain, it’s not uncommon for survivors of a traumatic event (or events) to lose all or partial memory of the experience. In the context of trauma, recovered memories–sometimes referred to as ‘repressed’ memories–are memories that resurface a significant amount of time after the trauma has occurred, often years or even decades later. In a study published by the American Psychiatric Association(APA) titled “Traumatic Events: Prevalence and Delayed Recall in the General Population”, the UCLA Medical Center mailed a questionnaire out to a random sample of individuals across the United States with questions regarding memory of traumatic events. Participants reported three different variations of memory status regarding the recollection of the traumatic event: continuous memory of the event, and for those who experienced delayed recall, partial memory loss of the event, and complete memory loss of the event

The study found that those who reported delayed recall were often younger at the age of the trauma, experienced significantly more types of trauma and feel higher levels of distress about the trauma both at the time it occurred and during the survey. Partial memory loss of the event was reported highest among those who’d witnessed the murder or suicide of a loved one, and survivors of childhood psychical and sexual abuse.  A history of complete memory loss of the event was reported highest among those who’d been sexually abused as children.

Below, you can find several graphs offering a visual representation of the study’s results:

Within the study, the findings of several other studies centered around the affects of childhood sexual abuse on memory were also referenced:

“Researches have studied self-reported loss of memory and subsequent recall as it specifically relates to child sexual abuse….combined percentages of self-reported partial and complete memory loss and subsequent recall in these studies range from 31% to 64%…Additionally, Williams (1994) conducted a prospective study on 129 women who had been identified as child victims of sexual assault during a study conducted in the mid-1970s. These women were reintervewied in the early 1990s regarding the index case of sexual assault…as many as 38% of these known victims of sexual had no current memory of the abuse.”

Diana M. Elliot

The report goes on to say that an additional 16% of women who remembered the abuse at the time of the second interview stated that they had experienced a time in the past in which they had forgotten it. Women who were younger at the time of the abuse or knew the perpetrator reported higher rates of memory loss. In addition to this, another finding that might be surprising in the wake of how recovered memories have been historically received, was that women who reported previous memory loss and subsequent recall “were no more likely to distort (either elaborate or minimize) their abuse than were women who reported continuous recall of the abuse”. Akin to UCLA’s findings, researches found the most common trigger for causing these memories to resurface was some form of media representation (i.e. movie, television show), followed by an experience similar to the original trauma or a conversation with a family member.

Why Do We Forget?

The figurative explanation given to trauma induced memory loss we often hear is that the event is too painful to access, so the mind “blocks it out”. While there is truth to this deconstruction, understanding the science behind recovered and somatic memory can be extremely helpful. 

 Our brains are fascinating organs, and it’s mission–first and foremost–is to ensure you survive. While some of these mechanisms can be extremely effective initially, that’s not to say they can’t cause problems down the like. It’s believed that during a traumatic experience, the brain often enters a different state of consciousness, like switching between radio stations. It’s in this separate state that that memory is stored, hence why it’s unable to be accessed even after the danger has passed. 

But let’s get a little more scientific. The prefrontal cortex (found in the frontal lobe) is responsible for cognition, personality, processing, reasoning and rationality. During a traumatic event, the body goes into survival mode which often results in the prefrontal cortex shutting down. Instead of encoding a traditional episodic memory, instead, different sensory fragments connected to the traumatic event are imprinted onto the amygdala, a part of the limbic system (“Trauma and the Brain“). These sensory fragments–sights, sounds smells–may act as triggers later, throwing the body back into ‘fight or flight’ even though the trauma has already passed. This is the literal breakdown behind what we mean when we say ‘the body remembers trauma’–it does.