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Freud and Memory: An Exchange

In response to:

The Revenge of the Repressed: Part II from the December 1, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

Frederick Crews has tried to correct one “folly” [NYR, December 1, 1994, p. 51] by countering it with the opposite folly. Just because many of the so called recovered memories in the modern literature turn out to be “false recollections” (to use Freud’s terminology), it is not logical to assert that recovered memories and the phenomenon of repression are therefore false. Just because many apples are demonstrably not green, it does not follow that Granny Smiths are a “myth.”

Within about one decade, and working by himself, without the benefit of an army of funded researchers, co-writers, and special conferences, Freud reached today’s cutting-edge position on recovered memories: He concluded that recollections in therapy were typically distorted and emphasized, as any mainstream memory scientist would today, that the recollection of complex events from the past is a pastiche of fact and fantasy. Freud also advanced, already in 1895, the empirical (note, not romantic) observation, confirmed by experimental research in the past decade, that hypnosis is not memory enhancing.

Also, although one would not suspect it from Crews’ treatment, Freud’s stance against the credulous acceptance of witness testimony is completely in keeping with the position that memory scientists—and Crews himself—advocate. In 1906, around the time Freud was withdrawing his infantileseduction hypothesis of hysteria (note, not denying childhood sexual abuse), he published a brief article, “Psychoanalysis and the Ascertaining of Truth in Courts of Law.”1 “There is,” he begins, “a growing recognition of the untrustworthiness of statements made by witnesses, at present the basis of so many judgments in Courts of Law…” (p. 115). He comments later on cases where the witness is actually testifying against himself—persons like Crews’ “Freudian Christian Paul Ingram”:

You may be led astray in your examination by a neurotic who reacts as though he were guilty even though he is innocent—because a lurking sense of guilt already existing in him assimilates the accusation made against him on this particular occasion….and it is indeed a question whether your technique will succeed in distinguishing such self-accused persons from those who are really guilty. [p. 124]

As for false witnessing, I was surprised to read in Crews’ reference to my work2 : “Remarkably, Erdelyi welcomes Freud’s unclarity as providing a sound basis for integrating the ‘dynamic’ with the cognitive unconscious” (NYR, November 17, 1994, p. 54). This is, perhaps, a false memory of Crews’, not my position.

Crews also misrepresents the status of memory recovery and repression in the scientific literature. He embraces the notion, “that memory always fades with the passage of time” (NYR, November 17, 1994, p. 56), when a huge literature shows that recall can progressively improve over periods of minutes, days, weeks, months, and probably years. Several scientific reviews of the recent experimental literature have been published over the past decade.3 My in-press book, The Recovery of Unconscious Memories: Hypermnesia and Reminiscence (University of Chicago Press) reviews and integrates a century of clinical and experimental work on the phenomenon of upward-trending memory. The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV) includes dissociative amnesia, “an inability to recall important personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature…which may resolve spontaneously…. Some individuals with chronic amnesia may gradually begin to recall dissociated memories” (pp. 478–479).

Crews himself, in another section, seems to accept the phenomenon he has elsewhere disclaimed, as when he states, while criticizing repression: “Ross Cheit, a Brown University professor, has recently proved beyond question that his suddenly recovered 1968 molestation by a music camp administrator was real” (NYR, November 17, 1994, p. 55).

Ignoring for the moment the question of repression, which is a vast red herring in Crews’ article, Cheit’s recovered memory suggests that memory need not invariably decay over time. Even if, for the sake of argument, we chose to deny the existence of repression as Freud defined it—the exclusion of some memory or impulse from consciousness—inaccessible memories, forgotten for whatever reason, are still subject to recovery.

Although repression is not material to the existence of delayed recall, this does not mean that repression does not exist nor that what Crews suggests about repression is accurate—for example, that repression needs to occur “abruptly and completely.” Repression can be laborious and imperfect.

Jerome Singer’s edited book, Repression and Disassociation, includes a range of positions by mainstream scholars. By highlighting the quote of David Holmes, probably the most constant critic of repression in psychology, Crews is not accurately conveying psychology’s stance on the issue, which is mixed. In my own cited chapter I suggest that a large part of the problem is that the field has confused Sigmund Freud with Anna Freud. Unlike his daughter, Sigmund Freud did not insist that repression needed to be unconscious (he actually warned his readers that repression did not have to be always conscious) and used, as I show in this and later publications, the terms repression and suppression interchangeably, along with “inhibition,” “dissociation,” “thought avoidance,” among others. I do not know of an experimental psychologist who would dispute the phenomenon of conscious repression or suppression. Experiments show4 that avoiding thinking about a complex event leads to the classic memory “decay” function of Ebbinghaus. Some of the “decayed” memories, however, can be recovered by the simple expedient of refocusing thought upon the forgotten material.

Matthew Hugh Erdelyi

Professor of Psychology

Brooklyn College, CUNY

Brooklyn, New York

Frederick Crews replies:

If Matthew Erdelyi had carefully read “The Revenge of the Repressed,” he could have spared himself some of the effort displayed above. Erdelyi has me saying, for example, that Freudian repression is simply “false.” What I actually wrote was that repression may conceivably occur but that it remains undemonstrated by controlled studies—a point that Erdelyi himself has often conceded.5 My full position, ignored by Erdelyi, is that the idea of repression is too speculative and inflammatory to be harmless in the hands of impressionable patients, therapists, and juries.

Again, Erdelyi thinks he has caught me asserting that no memories are ever recovered, thanks to the fact that “memory always fades with the passage of time.” I am allegedly contradicting myself, then, when I discuss an authentic case of recovered memory. My statement about decay, however, was specifically addressed to what I called “the retrievers’ notion that ‘videotaped’ records of events are…yielded up to perfect recall.” Erdelyi has failed to grasp my dual point that (a) more mundane processes than repression and derepression can account for the occasional instance of belated recall, and (b) the mere retrieval of a memory does not establish the pathogenic character of the recalled event.

Erdelyi is that rarity, an experimental psychologist who clings to a prior Freudian faith. The contortions necessitated by such divided loyalty are on view not only in the letter above but also in the article I originally cited, “Repression, Reconstruction, and Defense.” My brief account of that article’s strange logic, Erdelyi claims, sounds like the product of a “false memory” on my part. Let us see.

Erdelyi maintains that Freud, thanks to his “tendency toward self-contradiction” (p. 13) and to “the impalpability of the referents” (p. 10), held only a vague and unstable idea of what repression entailed. The concept, Erdelyi shows, answered to “a vast sprawl” of characterizations, from mere “neglect” through “pushing [the unbearable idea] away” (p. 9). Yet Erdelyi is undaunted by this sloppiness. Brazenly, he takes the lowest common denominator of Freud’s many “repressions”—namely, the mere “intentional not-thinking of some target material” (p. 4)—and claims that it has been vindicated by rigorous experiments on diminished recall:

The essential point is that not-thinking/ repressing / dissociating / cognitively avoiding/ leaving to itself/warding off some to-be-remembered material for whatever reason—psychological poverty, defense, experimental exigencies, or what have you—can result in amnesia. [p. 11]

It seems, then, that Freud was right after all: when we cease thinking about something, it becomes harder to remember!

Erdelyi’s article thus salvages repression by radically trivializing its function in Freud’s psychodynamic system. Now a pea-sized repression, purged of Oedipal, etiological, and therapeutic implications, can be reintroduced as a conscious cognitive skill, “an obvious and ubiquitous device” (p. 14) whose general recognition can lead at last to “the integration of psycho-analysis and experimental psychology” (p. 14). Erdelyi then wills this integration into being by executing a neat pirouette. He adds back in the classic defensive role of repression that he has just finished belittling, and concludes by declaring that academic psychology must now embrace “conflict-fraught” repression as the needed corrective to its “overemphasis of the merely intellective” (p. 27).

Crucial to Erdelyi’s special pleading is his claim that, on the whole, Freud conceived of repression as a conscious rather than an unconscious mechanism. Readers may wonder why, after nearly a century of study by hundreds of investigators, only Erdelyi has perceived that fact. The answer is that he has jumbled the decision to repress, which Freud sometimes treated as conscious, with the continuous work of repression as a supposed blocker of access to consciousness. Pathogenic traumas, Freud consistently maintained, “are never present in conscious memory, only in the symptoms of the illness” (Standard Edition, 3:166). Otherwise, the rationale for protracted psychoanalytic treatment would have immediately collapsed.6

Erdelyi’s remarks above about the prophetic Freud are a throwback to the worshipful tradition of Ernest Jones. One would never know from reading Erdelyi that it was Freud’s own rashness—first in prematurely declaring his “seduction theory” proven, then in using even wilder guesswork to keep in play the gratuitous idea of repression—that made his notion of memory appear so complex. Nor would one suspect that it was precisely Freud’s credulity toward feats of hypnotism that inclined him toward repression in the first place. Freud gave up hypnotism not (as Erdelyi urges) because he had exposed its unreliability but simply because he was no good at it. “I soon began to tire of issuing assurances and commands,” he confessed, “such as: ‘You are going to sleep!…sleep!’ and of hearing the patient…remonstrate with me: ‘But, doctor, I’m not asleep”’ (S.E., 2:108).

More tellingly, Freud never questioned the fateful inference he had drawn from others’ dexterity with hypnotism, namely, “that my patients knew everything that was of pathogenic significance and that it was only a question of obliging them to communicate it” (S.E., 2:110). This was the central mistake that turned Freud into both a bullying therapist and a feverish speculator about the buried infantile past. And his favorite wild card of repression enabled him to trump all empirical challenges, ensuring that psychoanalysis would remain a body of dogma rather than a science.

Erdelyi draws our attention to a 1906 paper (S.E., 9:103–114) in which Freud warns against “neurotic” self-incrimination by innocent suspects. Actually, this was a lecture delivered to a class of Vienna law students, encouraging them to make forensic use of C.G. Jung’s word association tests—the value of which Freud was later to deprecate. He does address false confessions but characteristically overlooks their most likely source, coercive and deceptive means of interrogation. As always, Freud emphasizes the enduring determinism of “the unconscious” while remaining blind to compliance with the expectations of an interested inquirer.

Sealed within the analytic bell jar, Erdelyi cannot perceive the obvious Freudian underpinnings of our present recovered memory movement.7 Nor can he comprehend that his own experimental work on memory enhancement has no bearing on the credibility of that movement. Erdelyi’s studies favor the likelihood of some improved recall, mixed with error, when occasions for rehearsal of previously presented images, words, or stories are repeatedly supplied. That finding dovetails with my own acknowledgment that cueing can remind us of forgotten but unrepressed events. But it fails to come anywhere near the key question surrounding our recent epidemic of dire accusations. This is whether we ought to grant credence to highly anomalous “memories” of multiple sexual violations that were previously unremarked by the subject or anyone else—memories, moreover, “recovered” with the aid of hypnotism, sodium amytal, trance writing, and/or other leading procedures administered by therapists who have acquired a faddish belief that many adult symptoms are likely indicators of childhood molestation.

In short, pace Erdelyi, the question is not whether memory can ever be enhanced but whether otherwise incredible tales, produced in a climate of suggestion, should be allowed to ruin people’s lives. Erdelyi’s misconceived quibbles over repression will only lend encouragement to quacks whose “therapeutic” depredations ought to be halted at the earliest possible moment.

  1. 1

    The Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud, 10 Volumes, translated by E.B.M. Horford (Collier Books, 1963), Vol. 1, pp. 115–125.

  2. 2

    Matthew H. Erdelyi, “Repression, Reconstruction, and Defense: History and Integration of the Psychoanalytic and Experimental Frameworks,” Repression and Dissociation: Implications for Personality Theory, Psychopathology, and Health, edited by Jerome L. Singer (University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 1–32.

  3. 3

    For some of these reviews, see, in addition to the work cited in footnote 2: Matthew H. Erdelyi, “The Recovery of Unconscious (Inaccessible) Memories: Laboratory Studies of Hypermnesia,” The Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Advances in Research and Theory, Vol. 18, edited by Gordon Bower (Academic Press, 1984), pp. 95–127; David G. Payne, “Hypermnesia and Reminiscence in Recall: Historical and Empirical Review,” Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 101 (1987), pp. 5–27; Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. Wheeler, and Suprana Rajaram, “Remembering, Knowing, and Reconstructing the Past,” The Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Advances in Research and Theory, Vol. 30, edited by Douglas L. Medin (Academic Press, 1993), pp. 97–134.

  4. 4

    See the work cited in footnote 2.

  5. 5

    See, e.g., “Issues in the Study of Unconscious and Defense Processes: Discussion of Horowitz’s Comments, with Some Elaborations,” in Psychodynamics and Cognition, edited by Mardi J. Horowitz (University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 81–94. There Erdelyi grants that “the laboratory evidence has failed to provide viable proof for the existence of repression” (p. 84).

  6. 6

    If repression works unconsciously, moreover, Freud’s and Erdelyi’s idea of a conscious decision to repress becomes incoherent. Since the subject subsequently fails to perceive that he is repressing, he must also have repressed the memory of his decision to repress. So, too, this latter conscious choice must have undergone repression, and so on ad finitum, with increasingly implausible homunculi effacing their predecessors’ work within the psyche. It is, I suspect, Erdelyi’s uneasiness about this dilemma (Zeno’s paradox) that inclines him toward the heterodox view that repression itself operates consciously.

  7. 7

    As my article maintained, the “scientific” pretensions of that movement derive from a number of unwarranted beliefs that were directly propagated by Freud: that repression is the normal human response to trauma; that experiences in infancy produce long-term memories that can be accurately retrieved decades later; that adult psychological difficulties can be reliably ascribed to certain forgotten events in early childhood and not others; that sexual traumas are incomparably more susceptible to repression and the formation of neurosis than any other kind; that symptoms are themselves “memories” that can yield up the story of their origin; that dream interpretation, too, can disclose the repressed past; that memory retrieval is necessary for symptom removal; and that psychotherapists can confidently trace their clinical findings to the patient’s unconscious without allowing for the contaminating influence of their own diagnostic system, imparted directly or through suggestion.

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