Feb 5 2015 1:00pm

The Elusive Truth: Repressed Memories

When Eileen looked into her daughter's blue eyes, she was struck by the resemblance to her childhood best friend, who'd been killed at eight years old. The case had never been solved. But at that moment, looking at her daughter, Eileen had a terrifying flashback of the murder in vivid detail. The screaming, the rape, the crushed skull...and the killer. Who, she remembered with sickening clarity, was her father. Over twenty years later, her father was found guilty of the murder based on these “repressed memories.” But, as psychologist Elizabeth Loftus asks in her article “Myth of the Repressed Memory,” were Eileen's memories actually real?

First, a primer on memory. We start forming memories around nine months old, when the frontal cortex develops. Like language, memory is housed in the brain, within the temporal lobes. We figured this out in 1953, when a well-meaning surgeon cut out the temporal lobes of “Patient H.M.” to stop his seizures. Luckily, his epilepsy was cured, but unluckily, he also suffered severe short-term memory loss. Not “where did I just put my phone?” memory loss; he was completely unable to create new memories. If a stranger rang his doorbell, H.M. would answer and have a polite conversation. If the stranger then shut the door and opened it ten seconds later, H.M. would answer and have a polite conversation all over again. And so on.

Over time, we've learned a great deal about the neurological aspects of memory, its origin in the hippocampus, and processing and storing in the surrounding cortex. Through MRI and PET studies, we can now pinpoint the exact areas of memory formation and retrieval. We now know a lot about how we create memories.

What we don't understand is how we lose them.

I'm not referring to dementia here or the loss of memory through neurofibrillary tangles, brain atrophy, or other neurological dysfunction. I'm talking about “memory repression,” losing memory due to an emotionally traumatic event, just as the prosecutors claimed that Eileen did. The prickly question of “blocking” or repressing memories is not just murky, it's downright controversial. Vitriolic debates about memory repression have raged on for years between neuroscientists and psychologists.

Freud started it. Most of us have learned about Freud and his theory of the conscious and subconscious. Freud also had theories about memory. He posited that humans repress unpleasant or negative thoughts into the subconscious, leaving only functional, more constructive thoughts in the conscious mind. Thus, if an event is too traumatic for the brain to process, the memory is blocked or pushed into the subconscious.

“Hogwash!” the neuroscientists say.

“Isn't!” the neuropsychologists yell back. And thus we have a stand-off.

The truth is: no one really knows. It is clear that survivors of sexual abuse and other severe trauma at a young age may not fully remember these events. They may recall them later in life as flashbacks, just as war veterans who suffer PTSD. Blocked childhood trauma is one of the pervasive theories behind dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder), where patients enter a fugue-like state and lose time, sometimes spent as an alternate personality.

In Little Black Lies, my psychological thriller, Dr. Zoe Goldman is a psychiatrist who is well-versed in Freud and the theories of memory. When Zoe was only four, her mother died in a house fire. She remembers only fragments of that fateful night, and like other PTSD patients, still suffers nightmares from it. Working with her psychiatrist—yes, a psychiatrist sees a psychiatrist—she tries to recover memories through hypnosis (a fairly debunked method at memory retrieval, and in fact one which Eileen may have utilized). To make matters worse, her adoptive mother is declining from dementia and cannot provide reliable memories to help her daughter.

Little Black Lies is a mystery about the mystery of memory, the perilous boundary between what our brain allows us to remember and what we cannot help but forget.

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Sandra Block graduated from college at Harvard, then returned to her native land of Buffalo, New York, for medical training and never left. She is a practicing neurologist and proud Sabres fan and lives at home with her husband, two children, and their impetuous yellow lab, Delilah. Little Black Lies (Grand Central Publishing) is her first novel. Like her on Facebook and Follow her on Twitter!

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Jody Darden
1. jldarden
I have always been fascinated by memory issues and dream analysis. This sounds like a great read.
Joanne Mielczarski
3. jtmswim
Thia is a fascinating subject and I would love to win this book.
4. maryc
I've always found it interesting how different people's memories of the same event can be.
Steven Morse
5. esteban47
I knew the topic of memory was an interesting one, but this really brings something new to think on.
7. Shannon Baas
I would like this.
9. DebP
This is really interesting stuff.
10. Dawn Katzoff
looks good
carol bondell
13. csbondell
this looks like a good book and would love to win it.
Deborah Wellenstein
14. dglitter
I would love to win this book-thank you!
Andra Dalton
18. andra77
What a fascinating thriller!!! Can't wait to get my hands on this book!!! Thanks for the opportunity to win & good luck to all who enter!!!:)
19. Linda L
I so want to read this book!
20. ELWAY251
Sounds interesting, would love to read it.
Mary Tharp
22. simbas28
Would love to read this book! Sounds very interesting.
Janice Santillo
23. themommazie
Sounds very interesting. Would love to win.
Irene Menge
27. Goldenmane
Memory has always fascinated me. There are a few things that I have difficulty remembering, but there is one memory that has kept resurfacing for almost 50 years. The memory is always very clear and the details always the same. But the memory is false. Very peculiar.
Chris Teel
29. Teelioli
I am a retired 911 calltaker, and it has always interested me how people recall things differently, either at a scene as witnesses, or over long periods of time.
My favorite (if you can call it that) was a very elderly woman calling from a nursing home who wanted to clear her conscience of something she had witnessed as a child and had either repressed or lived with for decades. Without going into detail, it involved the loss of a childhood friend and would have been a criminal case if anyone besides the witness had been alive.
I'll never know if it was real or imagined, but her recollections seemed crystal clear and her grief seemed very, very real. I think it was what might be called a "dying declaration" since she was on her death-bed. I know for sure I'll never forget it and I hope by listening I gave her some degree of relief or absolution for what she carried all those years.
Jeffrey Malis
33. bravejam
Looking forward to reading more... Thank you for the article and the opportunity!
36. Amie George
Sounds like a really good book!
37. Madeline McEwen
Ties in well with Oliver Sacks' fascinating, "An Anthropologist on Mars." Right up my street.
41. jackieW
This book sounds very interesting.I know I would enjoy reading it.
42. michele c'melo
oh, i definitely want to read this!
Kris Kaminski
44. kjkski
I'm sorry forgot what we were talking about?
45. Donnas
I am currently reading a fictional story of a woman that experienced a trauma over 20 years ago. Every day is a new day and she doesn't recall the incident or anything since it happened. I think Little Black Lies would be even more interesting to read.
Linda Kish
46. ljkish
I've always wondered about repressed memories in cases that have been in the news. This sounds like interesting reading.
Janice Milliken
49. msjiva
I am curious about the subject matter of Little Black Lies. I will wager most of us have something we'd like to deep six in our minds!
Joyce Mitchell
50. JoyceLm
Sounds interesting - thanks for the chance to win.
Pete Weston
53. bluesbro74
Please remember that I entered for a chance to win.
Betsy Whitmarsh
54. Yogamom67
Controversial topic - should make for a good book!
Betty Woodrum
55. BLW
A very interesting article about the brain and how it functions and all of things we still don't know. The book sounds great and I appreciate the chance to win a copy.
I've always wondered about the veracity of repressed memories. This should be an interesting read.
Susan Pertierra
57. orchidlady01
This sounds like an interesting book to read. I've always been interested in memory and brain disorders, especially since my grandfather has Alzheimer's Disease.
Cindy Hipolito
58. mysuccess
Repressed memories are tricky to handle when you have children and it is their memories that must lie still. The few times memories floated to the surface was very painful, so we just let the children heal as they get older.
Denise Duvall
59. catpers
This sounds interesting. I wonder what causes one sibling in a family to have a better memory than another sibling?
60. Nanasf
Sounds very interesting. Repressed memories can be very difficult to handle.
Andrew Beck
61. queerbec
I am interested in how the brain functions and particularly fascinated by the issues of memory and where in the brain memories are stored and why we can't always access them.
64. Coby
I have always been interested in the subject of repressed memories. In part due to the debate about the validity of repressed memories. Thanks for a chance to win.
Coby Scott
65. cobyjean
Let me try this again. I would love to win this book! See above messsage

; )
shawn manning
66. shawnmanning
I would be interested in hearing more about the topic from a professional perspective.
Rhonda Struthers
67. redherring
I have just listened to a CBC radio broadcast on this subject. Very interesting.
68. Holmes
I've always thought, especially as an actor, how amazing the brain's memory is. How sometimes I could remember an entire page or two of As You Like It (Jaques) and then have no fear of doing it in front of 400 people. But another time I was playing the relatively small part of John, in The Lion in Winter, who just has shot dialogue and I realized mid-scene that I couldn't remember my exit line. I kept throwing out my other lines in the correct order while trying to remember the last line (which of course is the worst thing you can do.) And just when it got to my exit line--I still couldn't remember it so I just left, leaving my two brothers momentarily befuddled on stage. Memory is so weird--Unbelievably the other day I..I was with this incredibly hot movie star and I...I...oh crap, I can't remember.
Laurence Coven
69. Holmes
I find myself wondering about these comments to win the book. Do the folks who write an interesting nuggest of information or share an experience have the same chance to win as someone who writes "Wow, this book sounds totally awesome!" Just wondering
Kelley Tackett
70. tackettfamilyky
Just watched an episode of The Blacklist that dealt with repressed memories. This sounds like an amazing book.
Saundra K. Warren
73. shortiew
I've always been interested in this subject
susan beamon
75. susanbeamon
An interesting subject, the science isn't yet where we would like it to be.
76. sarah conaway
I really need this. I have suffered from PTSD since my family was murdered in 2010 and the consequences of severe memory loss are horrile. I feel like I have Altziemers at age 35.
M Thompson
78. MST
An interesting topic because there are many cases of alleged assaults from years ago in the news these days.
Darla Peduzzi
83. DarlaPed
I'd love to read this! So interesting to me.
Sally Winkleblech
84. sallyw
I think this is a fascinating subject, with no current true answer. I would love to read her book and her interpretation.
85. Lisa Lear
Sounds like an interesting book!
Heather Cowley
86. choochoo
Very cool! I'm sure I'll learn some sinister! lol
Rena Sollish
89. Rena
Wow! Sounds really intriguing. Can't wait to win this book.
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