In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s terms are repression and suppression.
Freud’s psychoanlytic theory
Suppression and repression are examples of defense mechanisms that were identified by Sigmund Freud. They serve the purpose of removing unwanted information from conscious awareness. Suppression is done consciously, while repression is automatic and unconscious.
Freud proposed repression as a mechanism to describe why his patients had such difficulty recalling past memories. He later described repression as “the corner-stone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests” (as quoted in Wikipedia).
Freud believed that even though the memories couldn’t be accessed consciously, they would still have influence subconsciously in other ways.
Wikipedia has a page devoted to the concept of motivated forgetting. During World War I, memory repression was a regularly prescribed treatment for soldiers who’d been through highly traumatic experiences.
Research on repression & suppression
A Scientific American article described a study in which some of the subjects were asked to actively suppress memories of word pairings they had rehearsed. MRI scans showed activation in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for executive functioning. Later, the subjects who were asked to suppress had lower word recall than subjects who were asked to recall the word pairs while in the MRI scanner.
Suppression of visual stimuli occurs regularly and allows us to selectively focus on certain things. There’s a fascinating case report in the same Scientific American article of someone with dissociative identity disorder. It’s unclear how many alters there were, but at least one was sighted and one was blind. The person was shown visual stimuli while connected to an EEG to monitor electrical activity in the brain. The sighted alter had a normal electrical response, while the blind alter had a greatly reduced response. That’s not something that’s under conscious control, so it’s truly remarkable.
Repression, in the sense proposed by Freud, is not universally recognized as legitimate by psychologists. There may be other mechanisms that come into play, such as the “normal” forgetting that all of us experience at times. The question of repression is particularly contentious when it comes to recall of memories that were repressed earlier in life and completely forgotten.
Therapy and repressed memories
False memories may arise during therapy, and there’s no clear way to distinguish these from actual repressed memories. It’s considered rare that childhood incidents that were entirely forgotten would be remembered later in life, and the majority of people who have experienced childhood abuse remember either part or all of the abuse.
Sometimes therapy is done to try to recover repressed memories. This is controversial because of the risk of eliciting false pseudo-memories, and recovered-memory therapy is not accepted as a mainstream practice in the fields of psychology or psychiatry. Techniques used may include hypnosis, age regression, guided visualization, or the use of “truth serum” drugs like barbiturates. It’s important to differentiate this from legitimate trauma therapy that works on processing memories.
Overall, this seems like a topic where probably there’s more that’s unknown than is known for sure.