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Freud and Penfield were wrong about memory and it leads to woo

ResearchBlogging.orgDon’t get me wrong, Sigmund Freud and Wilder Penfield were far more intelligent and successful than I, but in hindsight we now have evidence that disconfirms their models of memory. The costs of having an inaccurate model of how memory works are immense.  There are financial and opportunity costs to psychotherapy participants and on occasion there are career costs to psychotherapists who get it wrong.  There are costs associated with getting the model of memory almost correct.  It really is so important to have a full understanding of how memory works, and this is especially true for up and coming psychotherapists.

          As a whole, I think most of us are getting the model of memory slightly wrong: One of my favorite radio hosts, Garrison Keillor, a real sweetheart of a man and a great thinker, said this on his May 6th broadcast of The Writer’s Almanac:

“But whether or not [Freud] is taken seriously in psychology and scientific communities in the way he intended, there is no doubt that Freud’s cultural influence is huge… And most people accept the basic idea that our minds are capable of repressing traumatic experiences or feelings

(Listen here: Writer’s Almanac Audio File May 6, on Freud

I heard this on the radio coming back from CSUN after a day of working on an experiment in which we found that 76% of third year psychology undergraduates agreed with the claim “traumatic memories can be immediately repressed and can be retrieved exactly in therapy decades later.”  So in a way Garrison Keillor was right, most of us do believe this, but it is slightly wrong, and in a shockingly important way.

Sigmond Freud

          The evidence from experiments on memory in cognitive and social psychology, and from studying trauma memory in clinical psychology I think crucially modifies Freud’s traumatic-memory model.  The evidence suggests that traumatic memory is often remembered better than ordinary memory.  Even if trauma can be forgotten, the mechanism of repression is not needed to explain that. This is because traumas are not forgotten at any rate quicker than ordinary events.  In fact, trauma seems to be remembered better and longer, and the fading or forgetting of unpleasant events can be explained by normal memory mechanisms.  It seems that unpleasant events are remembered more persistently and accurately if they are experienced as extremely highly stressful at the time of the experience. Now let’s look at just the tip of the iceberg of the evidence about this (for a fuller review see McNally, 2003). 

          Every now and again rare opportunities crop up to ethically study the effects of corroborated potentially traumatic or unpleasant experiences on memory.  In children, one way this was done was surrounding a painful medical procedure (VCUG) that involved insertion of a tube into the urethra to diagnose urinary tract problems.  Contrary to the idea that unpleasant or traumatic events are immediately repressed: the children had better recall of events when they had more than one VCUG treatments (Goodman, 1994; Quas et al. 1999). 

            A similar study, again using verifiable events, found that children recall accurate, detailed memories of emergency room treatment for lacerations and fractures six months later (Peterson & Bell, 1996).  Consistent findings in these types of studies show that older children have better memory than younger children

            In adults, the evidence points to the same thing. Yuille and Cutshall (1986) found that of those people who had witnessed a fatal shooting, the 5 most distressed witnesses were most accurate at recalling the event, compared to the 7 less stressed witnesses.

            In short, stress and terror seems to improve memory, and there seems to be little corroborated evidence that repression is the usual course of events following a trauma.  So Freud was wrong about trauma being immediately repressed.  He was also wrong about infantile amnesia – it has nothing to do with trauma – because everyone experiences infantile amnesia regardless of trauma.

Wilder Penfeld

          Whereas Freud got most things wrong, the great scientist Wilder Penfeld got most things right, but he didn’t get everything right in his career. One long-lasting mistake came about from his study using electrical stimulation to the human brain whilst the patients were conscious.  He stimulated the temporal lobes (an area important in memory, containing the hippocampus and surrounding structures) and reported that his patients experienced vivid flashbacks.  Penfeld guessed wrong: he wrote that the brain stores in memory everything that has been experienced.  Harvard psychologist Richard McNally (2003) explains where Penfeld went wrong:

 “what his patients termed ‘flashbacks’ were actually little more than sensory fragments accompanied by a feeling of familiarity, and even when entire scenes unfolded, some could not have happened the way they were remembered. For example, one woman saw herself, from the perspective of an observer, as a 7-year-old girl walking through grass.”

And not only that, only 12 out of his 520 patients reported both visual and auditory perceptions (Loftus and Loftus, 1980).  To be perfectly clear about this, research since Penfeld’s time has shown that memory is not recorded like a videotape, all experiences are not stored, and those that are stored are not recalled with absolute accuracy.

            The combination of Freud’s and Penfeld’s mistakes led to an explosion of therapies and treatment approaches that just got the model of memory wrong, sometimes with high costs.  Some of these treatments cropped up in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and the basic ideas have continued on into treatments still used in 2010. Scientology, starting in the 1950s, for example, has a model of memory that involves engrams: where “Engrams are a complete recording, down to the last accurate detail.” Primal therapy sprung up in the 1970s, drawing from both Penfeld’s and Freud’s errors to conclude that birth traumas can be re-experienced exactly as had happened originally.  Past life therapy took these ideas to the extreme, as did other regression therapies such as rebirthing and UFO abduction regression therapy.  The ultimate result of Penfeld’s and Freud’s guesses were: false memories.  No one intended for this to happen, and I’m sure Penfeld and Freud would not approve of many of these therapies, even at the time, and certainly not in hindsight.

            As for me, I will still listen to Garrison Keillor, after all what he said was correct, most of us do believe in Freud’s trauma repression theory, whether we know it or not. In light of the evidence though, I think that theory may be wrong.  If we get it wrong, trauma victims may get worse psychotherapy treatment than they would if we used a more accurate model of memory.


There is a mountain of evidence I couldn’t get to here, so for more on the myths and truths about memory see:

McNally (2005) Debunking Myths About Trauma and Memory


Goodman, G. (1994). Predictors of Accurate and Inaccurate Memories of Traumatic Events Experienced in Childhood Consciousness and Cognition, 3 (3-4), 269-294 DOI: 10.1006/ccog.1994.1016

Loftus EF, & Loftus GR (1980). On the permanence of stored information in the human brain. The American psychologist, 35 (5), 409-20 PMID: 7386971

McNally, N. (2003). Remembering Trauma Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Quas JA, Goodman GS, Bidrose S, Pipe ME, Craw S, & Ablin DS (1999). Emotion and memory: Children’s long-term remembering, forgetting, and suggestibility. Journal of experimental child psychology, 72 (4), 235-70 PMID: 10074380

Yuille JC, & Cutshall JL (1986). A case study of eyewitness memory of a crime. The Journal of applied psychology, 71 (2), 291-301 PMID: 3722079

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