Caution tape and repressed memories

In this blog post I am going to explain repressed memories and how the popular Netflix show Dexter used them. Repressed memories happen when a person experiences a traumatic, extremely emotional, or stressful event. This event is then encoded as an episodic memory. Because this memory creates a large amount of discomfort it is believed that we block it out as a psychological coping mechanism. Forgetting about the event is an active process. We reroute the pathway to this memory so that it is difficult to reach consciously. It is also believed that we block it out because it would create extreme emotions (anger, depression etc.). If someone had a repressed memory they wouldn’t know it because the whole point of a repressed memory is that you forget it. This makes a repressed memory very hard to diagnose. However, eventually repressed memories are able to be identified through development of other psychological problems like depression, PTSD, disassociative disorder and anxiety.

Psychologists believe that in order to discover a repressed memory the person has to be exposed to certain “cues”. Cues are objects, other memories, people, or concepts that we relate to a memory that cause us to recall (remember) it. In the case of repressed memories, it is harder to find a cue to recall that memory. The cue has to be very specific. Some Psychologists have found in order to recall a repressed memory the person has to be in the same state of consciousness that they were when it was encoded.

A study showed that extra synaptic GABA receptors in the brain help encode memories of fear inducing events and store them where they can’t be consciously recalled. These receptors are only activated during a traumatic event. When the brain isn’t in this stressful state the same pathways can’t be used making it so that you can’t recall the memory. They tested their theory on mice by infusing the hippocampus of the mice with a drug that activates the extra synaptic GABA receptors. While they were in this brain state they were on a box and given a mild shock. The next day when the mice were returned to the block and their brains were in their normal state and they were not afraid. However, when the scientists gave them the drug again they became afraid of the block. This supported the theory that the two different brain states encoded memories differently.

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In the popular Netflix series Dexter they use repressed memory to explain the main characters childhood and why he doesn’t remember what happened to his birth mother before being adopted. Spoiler alert! The show Dexter is about a man that works for the LA police department as a scientist and helps investigate murders. What his coworkers are not aware of is that Dexter uses the resources of the police department to find murderers secretly and kill them. In one episode of the show he goes to investigate a murder scene and it acts as a very specific retrieval cue for him to remember a repressed memory. All the sudden the show has you witness him remembering the traumatic event of his mother being killed. They use this repressed memory to explain why he kills people. I think while they sort of got the idea of repressed memories right, but they could have done it better. I definitely don’t believe repressed memories leads to murdering people.

All together I think that repressed memories are very interesting especially on the neurological level. However it is greatly disputed on its legitimacy and after all the research I did I am completely torn. Do you believe in repressed memories?

4 thoughts on “Caution tape and repressed memories

  1. cwehner

    Great post! I find the idea of repressed memory totally fascinating. I really appreciated the way that you tied the science behind how repressed memories are formed in with the show Dexter. The information about the mice is especially interesting — the fact that the mice were only able to respond to the memories when they were in the drug-induced state is really telling. I think that actually offers some strong support for repressed memories. If having cues, such as being in a similar circumstance or emotional state, triggers memories in day to day life, then it’s logical to conclude that a similar process happens when someone recalls traumatic memories. But since cues for a traumatic memory is less likely to happen in day to day life, it could appear to be repressed — and then come back once a situation that cues the memory comes up.

  2. julianv

    There’s some information there that is actually completely novel to me, an interesting read to be sure! In line with traumatic events, I believe it would have been good to discuss, as the devil’s advocate, the potentially illegitimating effects of improper encoding; when the amygdala, and by association the hippocampus, are overstimulated when people experience too much stress, the hippocampus becomes neurologically unable to encode these memories. While I do personally believe in traumatic memories, I think that these memories are simply not at the level of trauma at which the brain simply will not encode the events. Thanks for sharing!

  3. chooker

    Such an interesting blog post. I always am interested in how people repress memories and why. I know in movies like Sybil, I think she repressed a memory that she was abused when she was younger. That is why she had so many problems later on and she did not know why until she got help from a doctor later on in her life. I wonder if there are repressed memories that I have.

  4. rgallahan

    This is so interesting. I feel like I have no choice to believe in repressed memories because if i have them, I obviously won’t know until it comes back. I have not had this experience but I can not imagine having trauma resurfaced like that. It is a coping mechanism I believe, making it so a person can move on from this event. I wonder if repressed memories is one pathway towards the beginnings of dissociate identity disorder. Cool stuff!

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