Psychology Repressed and Recovered Memories
Elke Geraerts, Marieke van Meggelen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0035


During his career, Freud employed many different definitions of the term repression, ranging from “an automatic defense mechanism banning aversive memories or experiences from consciousness” to “a conscious, deliberate process, including active avoidance.” Freud stated that repressed memories of sexual abuse in early childhood caused hysteria. Later on, he concluded that most of his patients had imagined their abuse and that only some of them had actually experienced abuse. Freud raised an important question, one that is still current in the early 21st century: Can someone forget a traumatic experience for many years and recover the memory of this event later on in life? This question led to a heated debate about memory within the fields of psychology and psychiatry, starting in the 1990s. Although the debate seemed to decrease in intensity and divergence after several years, the fervor of the so-called memory wars can still be seen in the early 21st century. Central in this debate are memories of childhood sexual abuse, especially those recovered. The veracity of such recovered memories has often been cause for discussion. Since the experimental demonstration that memory is susceptible to distortion and is therefore fallible, it is evident that suggestive therapeutic interventions aimed at recovering memories may lead, at least in some cases, to the creation of false memories. Starting in the early 21st century, researchers took recovered memories into the laboratory to examine how people create, forget, and recover memories. Many interesting studies have been conducted on these topics, and the highly contrasting perspectives stating that recovered traumatic memories are either all true or all false seem to have merged into a more balanced stance, in which some recovered traumatic memories can be considered as likely to be false and others, as probably authentic. However, also with regard to this approach, different opinions continue to exist.

General Overviews

Opinion on recovering memories and, more specifically, recovered traumatic memories, such as childhood sexual abuse, is strongly divided. The recovered memory debate, which reached its most heated point during the 1990s, has inspired many researchers in the field of psychology to study and elicit their conception of the topic of recovered memories. The following general overviews introduce readers to the diversity of these different points of view. Information is provided on the history of the debate as well as useful explanations of important terminology, such as repression. Wright, et al. 2006 describes the recovered memory debate and covers the history of recovered memories. Erdelyi 2006 approaches the subject of repression by considering several important questions, including, how can repression be defined? and, is it possible to repress unwanted memories? Brewin 2007 examines the effect of trauma on memory. This article is particularly useful for exploring the influence that traumatic experiences can have on memory and the controversies concerning this topic: whether traumatic memories are any different from other types of memories, whether traumatic memories are better or worse remembered than other memories, whether traumatic events be forgotten and then recalled later on in life, and the roles that repression and dissociation play in this discussion (Brewin 2007).

  • Brewin, Chris R. 2007. Autobiographical memory for trauma: Update on four controversies. In Special issue: Autobiographical memory and emotional disorder. Edited by Tim Dalgleish and Chris R. Brown. Memory 15.3: 227–248.

    DOI: 10.1080/09658210701256423

    This article is a review of the empirical research on trauma and autobiographical memory since 2000. The article offers an overview of the research, looking at four well-known controversies in the field of memory, for example, whether traumatic memories are any different from other types of memories. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Erdelyi, Matthew Hugh. 2006. The unified theory of repression. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29.5: 499–511.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X06009113

    The author reviews the history, definitions, and theories on repression and gives a clear overview of the questions and distortions that arise in its consideration. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Wright, Daniel B., James Ost, and Christopher C. French. 2006. Recovered and false memories. Psychologist 19.6: 352–355.

    This article provides a brief but clear context for understanding the so-called memory debate. Reviews the history of recovered memories and the role of science in the debate on recovered and false memories.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.