Saturday, May 10, 2014

Repressed and Recovered Memories

Call it a surviving piece of Freud’s legacy. With some notable exceptions many therapists believe that treatment involves recollecting forgotten infantile traumas.

When Freud first defined the concept of repression he saw it in terms of forgetting traumas. After he decided that the most decisive, defining events all occurred before the age of 5, he concluded that remembering what had happened then would be therapeutically beneficial.

Some therapists took it a bit too far. They claimed that if we could remember and relive our first major trauma, the trauma of birth, we would be freed from all subsequent neurosis. This gave rise to primal scream therapy, a technique that mercifully has disappeared from the therapy ecosphere.

Of course, Freud eventually shifted his emphasis from forgotten traumas to repudiated desires. Still, he did concoct the theory of a primal scene, a traumatic event that presumably occurred while his patient—aka the Wolf Man-- was eighteen months old, and which, also presumably defined all subsequent neurosis.

Freud was not deterred by the fact that the Wolf Man could not remember the primal scene. He insisted that it had taken up residence in his unconscious mind, there to exercise a nefarious influence.

A later analyst of some repute, Jacques Lacan dared to correct Freud. He declared that the Wolf  Man’s primal scene occurred when the child was less than a year old.

As for the Wolf Man himself, he was unimpressed. He later explained to a journalist that Freud’s fictional event could not possibly have happened.

In a perverse way, some later therapists have abused the art of recovering childhood memories. They helped their patients to recover the most grizzly traumas. Some of them might have happened; others could not possibly have happened. Better yet, they convinced their patients that they were all true.

All of these therapeutic exercises depend on the notion, sometimes asserted, sometimes assumed that we never really forget anything. If our brains store information about all experience, we can, in principle, can recover any memory of any event from our past. Therapists believe that this increased self-knowledge will necessarily be beneficial.

Those were my reflections when I read a report about a new study of infantile amnesia. Scientists have now discovered that when our brains grow new cells, these new cells “overwrite” earlier memories. Thus, when new brain cells develop only some of the information is transferred to the new cells; some of it is overwritten, thus erased.

That is the real reason why you cannot remember being weaned or being toilet trained.

The Daily Mail reports the story:

[Researchers] claim that as we become older, the growth of new brain cells effectively overwrites existing cells, erasing the early memories.

Infantile amnesia refers the absence of memories for events that occurred in our earliest years—most people typically don’t remember much of what happened when they were only 2 or 3 years-old,' said Katherine Akers, who led the study at the Neurobiology Laboratory at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

'But this doesn’t seem to be because children at this stage can’t make memories—when our daughter, for instance, was 3 years old she would enthusiastically recount in details trips to the zoo to see grandparents and so on. 

'But she is now 5 and has no recollection of these events - these memories are rapidly forgotten.'

Since the hippocampus is important for memory, there have been several studies examining how new neurons might contribute to forming new memories. 

The typical result is that reducing levels of neurogenesis impairs the formation of new memories.

But as new neurons integrate into the hippocampus, they may also impact existing memories, the researchers believed. 

In particular, as new neurons integrate they necessarily remodel hippocampal circuits, and this remodeling may lead to degradation of information (memories) stored in those circuits.


Charles A Pennison said...

Another interesting theory on memory is that the act of remembering changes the memory - see How Our Brains Make Memories.

The theory is that when we remember a memory, we have to make a new memory of the old one. When the new memory is made, the old memory is changed in some way.

Jocker said...

Nobody needs to repeat toilet training after third birthday. Nothing is erased. The problem is in a method of coding memories. Before 3 we code in emotional way, and later also in verbal. When emotional became also verbal, trauma hurts less.