Rethinking Recovered Memories: Psychoanalysis And The Workings Of Memory

January 13, 1999

There has been much public controversy surrounding the reporting in psychotherapy of previously inaccessible 'memories' of sexual abuse. The debate on the validity of recovered memory quickly became an either/or argument: memories of childhood trauma must be either fictions created on an analyst's couch or real events so horrible the mind hid them away.

A review of the literature surrounding recovered memory by British writer Mary Target offers another perspective based on psychological research into memory.

In her essay for the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, extending earlier work with Dr Peter Fonagy, Dr. Target explains that there are two types of memory, which interact. Procedural memory, built up from earliest infancy, carries knowledge about what to expect from the world and how to deal with it: knowledge that is very hard to verbalize but is shown in behavior. Autobiographical knowledge, established around 3-4 years of age, has been portrayed in the recovered memory debate as giving either a mental videotape that can be stored and replayed at will, or a wholly fictional imagining of past events (suggested by the therapist). In fact, personal memories are narratives based on a mixture of real events, the current mental state and wishes of the person, and probably the non-conscious influences of procedural memory.

Using commentary on six books, ranging from accounts of recovered memory to scientific works on memory and analysis, Target has synthesized current thinking. The result is a solid overview of the issues and a prescription for an appropriate analytic approach to the problem of memory.

Target argues that much of the debate on recovered memory is based on misunderstanding the aims of psychoanalytic treatment-in some cases by therapists themselves. Writers on both sides of the debate assume that therapy should find out what happened in the patient's past. Target focuses on the questions of what kinds of truths analysts and psychotherapist are in fact trained to uncover, and how their techniques can best serve the patient. Target argues that this requires a fuller understanding of the different kinds of memory.

Target explains that the most common model of memory, which now seems to be erroneous, includes the following assumptions: Those assumptions, she believes, have led to many problems surrounding recovered memories. For instance, it is found that detailed memories of childhood abuse, if retrieved for the first time as an adult, are unlikely to be factual, especially if the events are from before four years of age.

Although research has cast doubt on the 'common-sense' view of memory, it has produced two concepts that promise greater understanding of early childhood trauma:
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