Study Doubts Amnesia’s Literary Memory

Researchers challenge public to find pre-1800 evidence for repressed memory

In an unusual study published this month, researchers at Harvard Medical School have claimed that the psychiatric disorder known as dissociative amnesia, or repressed memory, is a “culture-bound syndrome,” and has no scientific basis.
Their argument is based on the conclusion that no evidence for the existence of repressed memory exists in literature, fiction or non-fiction, before 1800—while other psychological disorders like epilepsy and schizophrenia have been documented since ancient times.
Since the onset of their literary quest over a year ago, the researchers at Harvard-affiliated Mclean hospital have promised $1,000 to anyone who can provide a pre-1800 counterexample to their claim.
The contest, known as the “Repression Challenge,” can be found on the lab’s website at www.biopsychlab.com and has so far received over 100 submissions; but none have fit the study’s specific criteria.
Among other stipulations, the criteria require that the subject in question have experienced severe trauma, and that his or her memory loss cannot be explained by biological factors.
While Kenan Professor of Psychology Daniel Schacter, who studies the biological aspects of amnesia, agrees that examples of dissociative amnesia are difficult to identify before 1800, he does not rule out the possibility that they do in fact exist.
“The model for repressed memory is extremely complex, and it’s possible that any examples of the disorder before 1800 are simply not elaborate enough to satisfy the defined criteria,” Schacter said.
Professor of Comparative Literature Susan R. Suleiman, who is teaching “Comparative Literature 257: Trauma, Memory, and Creativity” this semester agrees that the criteria may be too exclusive.
“There are plenty of examples of characters before 1800 being enticed by the devil and losing memory as a result, but the criteria indicate that the experience must be ‘real,’” Suleiman said.
“Ultimately, I don’t think this study proves anything about repressed memory,” Suleiman added. “It’s really just an indication of the excitement around this whole debate.”
The study’s lead author, Professor of Psychiatry Harrison G. Pope ’69, maintains that the findings do not discredit the validity of the disorder, but rather imply that the disorder should be classified differently and treated accordingly in legal settings.
“Patients who recover repressed memories are entitled to careful therapy just like anyone else,” Pope said. “We’re just saying that there is no scientific evidence that shows that dissociative amnesia is some innate capacity of the brain.”
Pope argues that the lack of scientific evidence for the disorder indicates dissociative amnesia should be classified as a pseudoneurological symptom, a symptom that is experienced by the patient but has no physical evidence. He also argues that this study indicates that repressed memories should be discredited in legal cases.
While Pope and his colleagues have not identified a definite cause for the rise in cases of repressed memory since the beginning of the 19th century, Pope speculates that the rise of romanticism and the acceptance of the notion of ‘the unconscious’ may be contributing to the prevalence of the disorder.
“Hollywood may be partly responsible for the persistence of this notion because film is perfectly suited to the whole concept of memory,” Pope said. “An entire storyline can be resolved by a flashback of a repressed memory.”
—Staff writer Anupriya Singhal can be reached at asinghal@fas.harvard.edu.