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Hidden memory

Runa Rahman shines a light on the mystery of repressed memories.

What are repressed memories?

Repressed memories occur when a harrowing event, such as sexual abuse or witnessing a murder, occurs in someone’s life and their brain forces this memory into their unconsciousness to prevent the person feeling distressed. Interestingly, they will then normally go about their daily lives without remembering anything until the memory resurfaces due to related triggers such as a news article on rape or a gunshot.  The victim’s actions and thoughts will be influenced by this repressed memory and may lead them to therapy, where treatment could also allow the memory to resurface.

When repressed memories are recovered, by the aforementioned techniques, it comes back bit by bit and the detail is often very precise, even allowing certain individuals to remember maybe which side of the face received a slap during a physical confrontation, for example.- other times however, the likelihood of the repressed memory being true is questioned.

Why are repressed memories controversial?

Repressed memories are sometimes used in court to provide proof for crimes that happened in the past which no one initially believed. However, in any case where a repressed memory is used, it must be reinforced by other different types of evidence from difference sources. For one, we are all aware that over time the details of memories are eroded and we may get confused over the sequence of certain events. Also, outside influence such as other peoples perspectives on the event can cause the person with the repressed memory to adapt or question the details of their resurfaced memory.

For example, in 1995 Eileen Franklin accused her father George Franklin of raping and murdering her best friend Susie Nason two decades earlier. The condemning evidence was simply the repressed memory which was recovered by a psychotherapist who used hypnosis. The court claimed that this rendered the memory unreliable and freed the father. The question was whether the memory was fabricated and planted into Eileen’s mind by the psychotherapist or whether the act of hypnosis uncovered something retained deep within.

However, there have also been numerous cases where repressed memories have helped to secure a prosecution.

Although repressed memories have the danger of being falsified due to external sources and it being eroded over time, they do hold some credibility and certain details – having been cross-referenced - can be used in an unsolved case to finally put the suspect behind bars.

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