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Negative Memories Can Be Suppressed

New research supports the idea that memories of negative emotions, and the events that triggered them, can be suppressed.
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The notion that people can, and sometimes do, repress the memory of traumatic events — such as episodes of molestation they may have suffered as children — is a subject of sometimes-intense debate, not only in the legal community but also among psychologists. A newly published paper by New Zealand researchers won't settle the matter, but it provides evidence in support of the controversial theory.

In the journal Consciousness and Cognition, three scholars from the University of Auckland's Research Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, led by psychologist Anthony Lambert, describe two experiments designed to test whether negative emotional states can be suppressed. They used a variation on a classic learning task known as "think — no think," in which participants are presented with pairs of unrelated words, then instructed either to remember the second word in the pair or to attempt to keep it out of their consciousness.

In the two Auckland tests, participants (28 and 36 adults, respectively) were presented with word pairings in which an emotionally neutral word was paired with either an emotionally positive word such as "joy" or "love" or an emotionally negative word such as "cruel" or "hatred."

Half of the test subjects — those in the "suppress negative" condition — were told that if the second word in the pair was emotionally positive, they should reinforce their memory of the two-word combination, but if the second word was emotionally negative, they should attempt to banish it from their minds. For those in the "suppress positive condition," those instructions were reversed. To conclude the test, all were asked to try to remember all word pairs, regardless of previous instructions.

In both tests, "participants were able to suppress memory for items associated with emotionally negative words, but were unable to suppress memory for items associated with emotionally positive words," the researchers report. They add that the degree of memory impairment was "substantial" — 16 percent in the first experiment, 10 percent in the second.

The researchers note that this experiment "is a long way from situations in which individuals remember, or fail to remember, emotionally traumatic experiences." Failing to recall a small portion of items on a test "is clearly different from wholesale forgetting of an entire event," they write.

They add, however, that their findings present a possible mechanism for that larger-scale repression, in that they suggest actively trying to avoid thinking about a negative experience weakens memories of "all the contextual elements surrounding the event." Thus it is at least possible that, say, an entire horrible episode could be erased from one's conscious memory.

"Is it appropriate to identify the mechanism just described with repression, as conceived in psychoanalytic theory? Further data will be required to answer this question," they conclude. "The notion of repression is often taken to imply that repressed memories can be recovered at a later time. At this stage, our data are completely silent on this question."

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