Repressed memories in fact and fiction

1 minute read

The NY Times writer Benedict Carey has an interesting short article about research into repressed memories. There is a group of researchers who claim that the phenomenon is a cultural construct that emerged very recently:

In a paper posted online in the current issue of the journal Psychological Medicine, a team of psychiatrists and literary scholars reports that it could not find a single account of repressed memory, fictional or not, before the year 1800.
The researchers offered a $1,000 reward last March to anyone who could document such a case in a healthy, lucid person. They posted the challenge in newspapers and on 30 Web sites where the topic might be discussed. None of the responses were convincing, the authors wrote, suggesting that repressed memory is a "culture-bound syndrome" and not a natural process of human memory.

They're saying that the character Madame de Tourvel in Naturally, other researchers dispute the idea -- some even claim to have evidence from ancient Greek literature.

If I have an informed opinion, I've repressed it. But what I find interesting is the idea that a popular literary trends lead scientific research, sometimes to wrong results. It may be hard to rule out that something imagined in fiction could actually happen -- think of the number of people who have tried to find loopholes in special relativity that could lead to faster-than-light travel. There was no science fiction in 1800, but developing ideas about the mind provide their own equivalent.

We know that science can proceed along a false or misleading path for a long time when the cultural biases of the scientists lead research. Fictional plot devices are clever just insofar as people are willing to "suspend disbelief" about them -- which is a function of the readers' cultural biases. So the two combined might make for some interesting history!