Repression tries for experimental comeback

Sigmund Freud and his theoretical heirs have held that people are capable of pushing unwanted memories into a kind of unconscious cold-storage, where they’re gone but not forgotten. Many memory researchers view this mental process, called repression, as a fanciful idea lacking empirical support.

In the March 15 Nature, researchers describe an everyday form of induced forgetting that may provide a scientific footing for Freudian repression.

When people consistently try to forget a memory in the face of reminders, they often succeed rather well at it, say psychologists Michael C. Anderson and Collin Green of the University of Oregon in Eugene. Successful forgetting increases with practice at avoiding a memory, Anderson and Green say.

“Everyday mechanisms of memory inhibition provide a viable model of repression,” Anderson says. His view counters that of some clinicians, who hold that repression exists but only as a special process for dealing with traumas.

Anderson’s work was inspired by the finding that kids who have been sexually abused by a trusted caregiver forget that experience far more often than do kids abused by a stranger. Children can willingly use indirect reminders, such as the abuser’s presence, as cues to avoid thinking about the actual abuse, according to Anderson.

He and Green had 32 college students learn arbitrary word pairs, such as “ordeal-roach.” Volunteers then saw a series of single words from those pairs. Words were shown once, eight times, 16 times, or not at all. On each presentation, participants saw a signal to either remember and say aloud the associated word or to avoid thinking about it.

On an ensuing memory test, students recalled nearly all of the words that they had tried to remember. Volunteers recalled progressively fewer other words, the more chances they had to try to forget them. On average, they recalled about 80 percent of words they tried to forget.

Similar findings emerged when participants saw new words and cues intended to jog their memories, such as “insect-r___” to spur recall of “roach.” Again, memory suffered for words that students had tried to forget. These findings indicate that volunteers forgot specific words deliberately blocked, not word pairs.

Comparable memory losses emerged for students told that trying to forget a word would make them think about it more. For instance, people told not to think about, say, a white bear, can’t think of anything but that white bear.

In Anderson’s studies, however, volunteers used cues such as “ordeal” to anticipate and fend off unwanted memories. The white bear never showed its face.

The new data suggest that brain networks that restrain communication “could give rise to the type of repression proposed by Freud to underlie neuroses,” says Martin A. Conway of the University of Bristol in England.

Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of Washington in Seattle notes that memory was still pretty good for those who tried to forget words. She doesn’t regard the study as evidence of repression.

Anderson’s findings are “broadly consistent” with Freudian repression, remarks Daniel L. Schacter of Harvard University. Still, he cautions, it’s too early to conclude that willful forgetting applies to emotionally sensitive experience.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.