Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Repressed Memories

On a hygenic bed Douglas Quail lay breathing slowly an regularly, eyes half-shut, dimly conscious of those around him.
"We started interrogating him," Lowe said, whit-face. "To find out exactly when to place the fantasy-memory of him single-handedly having saved Earth. And strangely enough --"
"They told me not to tell," Douglas Quail mumbled in a dull drug-saturated void. "That was the agreement. I wasn't even supposed to remember. But how could I forget an event like that?"
I guess it would be hard, McClane reflected. But you did -- until now.
-- "We Can Remember it For You Wholesale", by Phillip K. Dick
The plot is a familiar one. Our heroine always felt a little uncomfortable, like something was a bit "off" in her life. Then, out of the blue, a familiar face or a smell or a song triggers a rush of memory. Something terrible happened to our heroine, so terrible that that specific memory was completely suppressed. What happens next depends on the genre: she'll crumble, or investigate, or seek revenge. Of course, in science fiction it can be more complicated. Perhaps the repressed memory was physically erased, or may actually turn out to be a virus masquerading as a memory engram.*

It's used so often it's a cliché, but I've never considered whether it's something that happens in real life. Researchers at the Biological Psychiatry Laboratory argue that repressed memories, AKA dissociative amnesia, is actually a "romantic notion dating from the 1800s, rather than a scientifically valid phenomenon." Interestingly, they base their hypothesis on the absence of descriptions of repressed (and regained) memories in fiction and non-fiction prior to the 19th century (pdf). Most psychological phenomena - depression, anxiety, delusions, hallucinations, dementia, and regular amnesia - are documented in literature throughout the ages.

They turned to the wisdom of the masses, offering $1000 for any example of dissociative amnesia written before 1800. Their Repression Challenge was won by the person who submitted the libretto of the opera Nina (pdf), written by Marsollier in 1786, so just barely before the turn of the 19th century. Their conclusion is that
". . . dissociative amnesia may seem very real, and even commonplace, to contemporary clinicians an their patients, just a s pseuo-paralysis was commonplace at the Salpetriere of Charcot in the 1890s, or pseudo-seizures at the Salem witch trials in the 1690s's. But each of these syndromes appears to have represented a cultural product of its time, rather than an actual neurological disorder of the brain. Viewed in this light, dissociative amnesia is best characterize as a 'culture-bound' form of conversion disorder, a phenomenon pecular to our modern Wsestern culture.
I find it amazing that our psychological condition may be influenced by literature, just as literature is built on our psyches. I wonder what else we may take for granted that is just a figment of our collective imaginations.

* In addition to the stories I linked to – Dick's "We Can Remember it For You Wholesale" which inspired the movie Total Recall, Spider Robinson's Mindkiller, the Star Trek Voyager Episode "Flashback," and the Enterprise episode "The Seventh" – check out this discussion at Lexicon Harlot for lots of other science fictional examples.

(Information on the Repression Challenge via Mind Hacks)

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