Science Monday: Freud thinks forgetting is healthy?


I’m stretching the science end of things here to include some historical data. In chapter 8, Volf looks at the works of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Freud on the topic of forgetting. The chapter is interesting but I’m going to skip blogging on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and only make a small comment on Freud. Volf argues that Freud never saw forgetting as always having a deleterious impact on mental health. We know that Freud believed that bringing repressed memories to the surface so as to release pent up energy. But did you know that he also talked about removing or erasing memory? Volf recounts one of Freud’s cases (Emmy von N.) in Studies on Hysteria where he says the following:

…and I made it impossible for her to see any of these melancholy things again, and not only by wiping out her memories of them in their plastic form, but by removing her whole recollection of them, as though they have never been present in her mind. (Volf, p154).

How did he do it you ask? Hypnosis. Later when he abandoned hypnosis, he talked about the fading of memories through something called “effacement.” The idea is that when you “starve” memories by releasing/removing the affect given them, they fade into the misty past. This is not motivated forgetting in order to reduce distress, but the reduction of distress that causes memories to fade.

Makes sense. I forget things every day that have no meaning to me. But nearly hit me on my way to work with your massive SUV and I’ll remember it well. However, since most days I don’t have near misses, I’ll begin to forget…

All well and good, but if the abuse or wrongs suffered are so big or at such a critical time in life, can I ever really forget? Its certainly a lot easier to forget and go back to a “normal” time but much harder to do so if there never was a “normal” time.

1 Comment

Filed under Abuse, counseling science, memory

One response to “Science Monday: Freud thinks forgetting is healthy?

  1. eclexia

    Having come out of an abusive marriage, I’ve been amazed at how helpful it has been to have only experienced that kind of trauma and betrayal as an adult. I can go back to a place and relationships that were in place long before the abusive marriage, and I know what safety feels like, even though I did not experience it for a few years. I think it does make a difference to have a normal to go back to.

    Discussions on memory interest me. People are often amazed at how well I remember facts and conversations and the like. They see me as intellectually smart, but I have realized that why I remember things is the strength of my emotional memory. If something evokes a feeling, it stays with me. If it doesn’t, I probably won’t even be able to understand it, let alone retain it. Fortunately, I feel in many nuances and shades of emotions, so there are enough memories for most things I see, hear or experience to be able to be categorized in my brain under a feeling (I don’t have words for all of these feelings, and this is not conscious of course.)

    The disadvantages of this way of my brain working, though, include not having the “fade away” effect. I mean, I’m obviously not remembering everything at one time. But, if I experience or hear or learn something that stirs a feeling, I will experience the memory of that feeling cumulatively. For good experiences, they are made more intense by the accumulaton of that feeling along the way over my life. Unfortunately, the same is true for bad feelings.

    An advantage (besides being good at memorizing facts that I “feel”) is that I’m able to empathize and make connections with other people’s feelings. That is also a disadvantage. I can see so many things from so many different angles (it is more true to say I feel them) that it is hard to choose one angle and make a decision from that perspective.

    I’ll have to think some more about the idea of “reduction of distress” causing memories to fade.

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