Monday, December 31, 2007

Repressed Memory - A recent cultural invention?

Literary references to depression, hallucinations, anxiety, and dementia can be found throughout history. A fascinating article in Harvard Magazine by Ashley Pettus describes the research of Harrison Pope, who reasoned that if dissociative amnesia were an innate capability of the brain it also should appear in ancient texts. An extensive search, and a $1000 reward, was able to find no reference earlier than Nina, an opera by Dalayrac and Marsollier performed in Paris in 1786. The absence of dissociative amnesia in works prior to 1800 suggests that the phenomenon is not a natural neurological function, but rather a “culture-bound” syndrome rooted in the nineteenth century. From the article:

What, then, accounts for “repressed memory’s” appearance in the nineteenth century and its endurance today? Pope and his colleagues hope to answer these questions in the future. “Clearly the rise of Romanticism, at the end of the Enlightenment, created fertile soil for the idea that the mind could expunge a trauma from consciousness,” Pope says. He notes that other pseudo-neurological symptoms (such as the female “swoon”) emerged during this era, but faded relatively quickly. He suspects that two major factors helped solidify “repressed memory” in the twentieth-century imagination: psychoanalysis (with its theories of the unconscious) and Hollywood. “Film is a perfect medium for the idea of repressed memory,” he says. “Think of the ‘flashback,’ in which a whole childhood trauma is suddenly recalled. It’s an ideal dramatic device.”

1 comment:

jed said...

Glad someone looked. But for example color blindness was never described until Galton (please correct me if I'm wrong about this). So the lack of prior descriptions is only suggestive, not conclusive.

Perhaps we could try to determine what sort of syndromes could exist without ever being described. Color blindness is "subjective" except in focused, sophisticated tests -- perhaps repressed memory follows a similar pattern.

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