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Recovered Memories in the General Population

Traumatic events: Prevalence and delayed recall in the general population. (Elliott, 1997). Full Text.
Impact: A random sample of 724 individuals from across the United States were mailed a questionnaire, and 505 responded. Among respondents who reported some form of trauma (72%), delayed recall of the event was reported by 32%. This phenomenon was most common among individuals who observed the murder or suicide of a family member, sexual abuse survivors, and combat veterans. The severity of the trauma was predictive of memory status, but demographic variables were not. The most commonly reported trigger to recall of the trauma was some form of media presentation (i.e., television show, movie), whereas psychotherapy was the least commonly reported trigger.

Posttraumatic stress associated with delayed recall of sexual abuse: A general population study. (Elliott & Briere, 1995) Full Text.
Impact: This study examined delayed recall of childhood sexual abuse in a stratified random sample of the general population (N = 505). Of participants who reported a history of sexual abuse, 42% described some period of time when they had less memory of the abuse than they did at the time of data collection. No demographic differences were found between subjects with continuous recall and those who reported delayed recall. However, delayed recall was associated with the use of threats at the time of the abuse. Subjects who had recently recalled aspects of their abuse reported particularly high levels of posttraumatic symptomatology and self difficulties.

Recovered Memory and Amnesia in Russian College Students. (Palesh & Dalenberg, 2006).
Impact: Of 301 participants from Moscow, 45 reporting a history of childhood abuse, and 21 reported partial or full amnesia of the abuse. The frightening and shameful parents factor was the most consistent predictor of amnesia and recovered memory, followed by subjective experience of fear and terror during trauma and chronicity of trauma. Participants’ alcohol use and recency of trauma did not predict recovered memory. Participants in the study who reported trauma and history of child abuse had more dissociative symptoms and were more depressed than non-traumatized participants.
Palesh, O., & Dalenberg, C. (2006). Recovered memory and amnesia in Russian college students. In (Ed.), College student: Stress, depression, and mental health (pp. 153-166). Hauppage, New York: Nova Science

Childhood abuse recollections in a nonclinical population: Forgetting and secrecy. (Fish & Scott, 1999).
Impact: In a sample of 432 individuals surveyed, 32% reported childhood abuse and 52% of those reporting abuse also noted periods of forgetting some or all of the abuse. Respondents who reported forgetting abuse also reported one or both elements of secrecy more frequently than those who reported continuous memories of abuse.

Self-reports of forgetting and remembering childhood sexual abuse in a nationally representative sample of US women. (Wilsnack et al., 2002).
Impact: Of 711 women, 21.6% reported childhood sexual abuse, and 69% of those women reported that they had forgotten the abuse for some period of time. Only 1.8% of women self-described as sexually abused reported remembering the abuse with the help of a therapist or other professional person.

The experience of “forgetting” childhood abuse: A national survey of psychologists. (Feldman-Summers & Pope, 1994). Full Text.
Impact: A national sample of psychologists were asked whether they had been abused as children and, if so, whether they had ever forgotten some or all of the abuse. Almost a quarter of the sample (23.9%) reported childhood abuse, and of those, approximately 40% reported a period of forgetting some or all of the abuse. Both sexual and nonsexual abuse were subject to periods of forgetting. The most frequently reported factor related to recall was being in therapy. Approximately half of those who reported forgetting also reported corroboration of the abuse. Reported forgetting was not related to gender or age of the respondent, but was related to severity of the abuse.

Childhood memory and a history of different forms of abuse. (Melchert, 1996).
Impact: Of 553 participants, those with histories of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse reported that they had periods without memory of their abuse (21%, 18%, and 18%, respectively). A great deal of variance was found in the reported quality of general childhood memory and the offset of infantile amnesia, and the findings also suggest that it is normative to recover memories of childhood. Each of these variables was also unrelated to the experience of child abuse.

Relations among childhood memory, a history of abuse, dissociation, and repression. (Melchert, 1999).
Impact: Of 560 participants, one quarter reported a history of child abuse, and 18% of these reported a period when they lacked memories of their abuse. These participants endorsed a variety of descriptions of their recovered memories, many of which do not suggest a lack of conscious access to the memories. General quality of childhood memory was found to be unrelated to a history of abuse, and most participants, regardless of their abuse history, reported recovering memories from their childhood in general. Repressive personality traits were found to be unrelated to recovering abuse memories, but dissociative traits were found to be weakly associated with recovering abuse memories.

Different forms of childhood abuse and memory. (Melchert & Parker, 1997).
Impact: Of 429 participants, those reporting histories of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse reported that they had periods without memory for their abuse (19.8%, 11.5%, and 14.9%, respectively). These participants, however, appeared to be referring to both a lack of conscious access to their abuse memories as well as the intentional avoidance of the memories for some period. There was a great deal of variance found in the reported quality of general childhood memory, but this was unrelated to reporting a history of child abuse.

Autobiographical memory disturbances in childhood abuse survivors. (Edwards et al., 2001).
Impact: In a large non-clinical sample, a history of childhood physical or sexual abuse doubled the prevalence of general autobiographical memory loss for women, while for men, the rate increased 1.5 times over those with no abuse history. Higher rates of autobiographical memory loss were noted where both types of abuse were reported. Further, multiple incidents of sexual abuse, sexual abuse by a relative, and more severe sexual abuse increased reports of autobiographical memory loss.

Explaining the forgetting and recovery of abuse and trauma memories: possible mechanisms. (Epstein & Bottoms, 2002).
Impact: 1,400 college women (aged 18-60 yrs) were surveyed about previous abuse. Rates of forgetting previous abuse were similar among victims who experienced sexual abuse (14%), physical abuse (11%), and multiple types of traumas (17%). Victims of other types of childhood traumas (e.g., car accidents) reported less forgetting (6%). Most victims’ characterizations of their forgetting experiences were not indicative of repression in the classic Freudian sense but instead suggested other more common mechanisms, such as directed forgetting and relabeling.
Note: Unlike other studies above, the authors only ascribed recovered memories to those who experienced “true repression” - a narrow definition of recovered memory. True repression is an outdated explanation for why memories of abuse are forgotten and later recovered, with most researchers attributing the mechanism behind recovered memory to dissociation. Furthermore, the authors inaccurately evaluated betrayal trauma theory, a leading theory behind the mechanism of forgetting and recovering memories.
Participants were asked to self-report the mechanism that best fit their experience of forgetting from four options: repression, retrieval failure, active cognitive avoidance, and relabeling. Only those who selected repression were described as having recovered memories. There are several problems with this methodology:
Widely-accepted mechanisms understood to result in recovered memories, such as dissociation and fragmented memories, were not included as self-report options.
Participants were not given the option to report partial amnesia, where some aspects of abuse are always remembered, while other memories are forgotten and later recovered.
Relabeling is often tied to experience of partial amnesia, as survivors only come to understand their experience as abuse upon recovering other memories.
Active cognitive avoidance, also known as directed forgetting, can result in memories becoming completely unavailable, and has been hypothesized to contribute to the process of “repression.”
By constricting participant’s self-report options and using repression as a narrow definition of recovered memory, the authors were able to conclude that recovered memories are rare or “almost nonexistent,” with only 5 participants experiencing “true repression” and memory recovery. Experts in psychological trauma would not agree that the mechanisms of recovered memory are limited to “true repression,” and would not reach the same conclusions.
Despite this study’s unsupportive conclusions regarding recovered memories, it is included in this list due to the raw statistics on forgetting memories of abuse. Regardless of the mechanism, a significant minority of participants were found to forget and recover memories of abuse, with similar rates of forgetting to other studies on the subject.

Memories of childhood sexual abuse: Remembering and repressing. (Loftus, Polonsky, & Fullilove, 1994).
Impact: 54% of the 105 women reported a history of childhood sexual abuse, 19% of which forgot the abuse for a period of time. Women who remembered the abuse their whole lives reported a clearer memory, with a more detailed picture. They also reported greater intensity of feelings at the time the abuse happened. Women who remembered the abuse their whole lives did not differ from others in terms of the violence of the abuse or whether the violence was incestuous.
Note: Loftus devotes most of the paper to attacking the outdated construct of repression, while subsequently using it to explain her participant’s recovered memories. Loftus also characterizes memories using a non-traumatic framework of memory (deterioration) instead of the broadly accepted concept of dissociative memory fragmentation. Her approach on this subject is divorced from the broader field of scientific professionals. An analysis of this paper’s shortcomings can be found on Jim Hopper’s Website.

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