In October a movie appeared in cinemas around the world. It is a movie about a concept that has been a distinct part of our social consciousness for about a century. A concept that has many believers but even more non-believers. This incredibly contentious topic that I speak of, which has led to the so-called "memory wars” is that of regression, and along with it it’s sister concept repression.
I don't even like saying the words. They sound like a hissing snake, or one person trying to silence another. Regressssssion. Repressssssion. Apparently my concern regarding the palatable nature of these words is not shared by the movie’s director Alejandro Amenábar, since he made it the name of his new film: “Regression."
But the most important concern that we should all have with this movie is its rehashing of a concept that should be long dead, a concept that resulted in the so-called ‘satanic panic’ of the 1980s and 1990s. This was a wave of false allegations of horrific satanic sexual abuse rings based largely on memories that emerged during problematic psychotherapy.
Clearly inspired by the satanic panic, the movie features a detective (Ethan Hawke) who is sent in to deal with a case where a father has confessed to sexually abusing his daughter (Emma Watson). The problem is that the daughter seems to have no recollection of it. This is where a psychotherapist is brought in to dig up the memory, and dig it up he does. The film then focuses on the horrific memories of satanic abuse that are uncovered.
What are regression and repression?
Regression therapy, which is central to this movie, is a process wherein a therapist has patients close their eyes and picture themselves as the child they once were. The idea is that this allows patients to access their childhood memories, particularly traumatic memories that they have repressed. The repression presumably happened because the patients weren't able to deal with the memory, which has led to their innate coping mechanisms pushing it out of their conscious mind.
The concept was first posited by the infamous Austrian psychotherapist Sigmund Freud, who believed that some of our most important but traumatic memories are hidden from us in a place called the subconscious. Regression therapy was thus born as a way to dig into the subconscious, recover these memories and bring them back to our conscious awareness. It has been particularly applied to attempts at recovering memories of sexual abuse.
What does the science say?
So, why do I care? Because I'm a psychological scientist who specializes in memory.
In my research I demonstrate just how easily our memory can be messed with. I use techniques that mirror the kinds of suggestion and imagination exercises that therapists often use in regression therapy, but I use them to deliberately create dramatically inaccurate memories.
My research shows that these techniques can generate complex memories, where people remember in vivid detail that they committed a crime, for example or that they physically injured themselves. But my participants never actually committed the crimes they so adamantly confess to, and never experienced the injuries they describe (for a quick description of how I do this you can go here).
The memories that I create are called rich false memories, and in situations outside of the lab they can quite easily ruin lives and can lead to complex false memories of atrocities like those that are ‘recovered’ by our Emma Watson character in the Regression movie.
At least in part, these memories can be created so easily because most people readily accept the idea of repression. They accept that we can experience things so terrible that they can be pushed out of our consciousness and into the special memory vault of the subconscious, a place where only a psychotherapist can unlock them.
Why does it matter?
The problem is that there is no empirical evidence to support such notions, certainly not in the way that Freud originally conceptualized them. As far as the scientific community is concerned, there is no secret repression vault, so there cannot be a secret technique to unlock it, thus eliminating the possibility of regression as a feasible therapeutic technique.
There is also a tremendous problem with assuming that there is such a hidden emotional vault—particularly a vault that stores atrocious experiences like the satanic rituals "recalled" by Emma Watson’s character in the movie ("I could hear chanting, they were wearing robes. There was a black mask…”). The problem is that our expectations tend to influence their behavior. If we assume that a hidden, repressed memory exists, we start to hunt for it.
If psychoanalytic therapists and patients go into a therapy session looking for the atrocities that ‘must’ be there, they can quite easily generate false memories in the process. The results can include families fractured by false accusations, and lawsuits based on ill-informed therapy that generated a memory of something terrible that never actually happened.
Where does this leave us?
The ideas of repression and regression tap into our inherent fears of losing or distorting our memories. It makes great fodder for psycho-thrillers. But, the fact that in 2015 I still regularly have conversations with intelligent people where I need to debunk their belief in the core concept of regression is, frankly, depressing. And, while I don't blame Hollywood for running with an interesting concept (as poorly as they may have translated it onto the screen), I do blame them for helping to keep this myth alive.
To summarize, and hopefully to help you sleep at night, let’s get this straight; there is no such thing as regression. In the name of science, let’s kill this myth.
This post is part of a series of articles called “Memory Mondays”, which focus on debunking common misconceptions and beliefs about how our memory works. Dr. Julia Shaw works at London South Bank University in the department of Law and Social Sciences. She is a senior lecturer, researcher, and author of The Memory Illusion: Why you may not be who you think you are, to be published in 2016 by Penguin Random House.