Memory and Psychoanalysis
Rene Magritte - Memory
The so-called "memory wars" were a prolonged conflict of views throughout the 1990s between psychotherapists and scientific psychologists about whether childhood memories of sexual abuse could be totally forgotten ("repressed", in line with psychoanalytic theory) and then "retrieved" in adult age through psychotherapy and drugs.
The former group, who coined the concepts of both repressed and recovered memories and many of whom derived their livelihood from them, generally believed that the answer is yes, while the latter group, headed by international memory expert Elizabeth Loftus, said that their own experiments disproved them and replied no.
It's been pointed out, by comedienne Roseanne Barr who claimed to have recovered memories of being abused as a child during therapy after something similar had happened to her husband, fellow comedian Tom Arnold, that memories of war can be blocked. So, she rhetorically asks, why not sexual abuse memories?
I'll start by attempting to answer that question. Perhaps war memories are wiped out because their trauma is of a different nature: it involves the fear of dying.
I had a quite serious car accident once, which I've forgotten from the moment I was in the car's passenger seat and felt the impact of another car to when I was in the hospital.
I'm just hypothesising, but it could be that the fear for one's life has a traumatic power unmatched by that of sexual abuse.
I find it extremely schizofrenic of our "sexually liberated" society that, while we generally consider sexual activity to have no or little moral relevance - certainly much less than our great-great-grandparents attributed to it -, at the same time we ascribe to sex and sexual experiences an immense psychological power, to the point of potentially totally destroying our mental health.
Rape and sexual abuse of adults and children are viewed as the most heinous crimes (as Law and Order puts it), worse than comparably bad physical attacks and even - absurdly - worse than murder.
Is this - the exaggeration of the psychological importance of sex - the way we compensate the underestimation of the ethical importance of sex?
The enormous power attributed to sex in mental health originally derives from a false theory, Freud's psychoanalysis.
Freud himself considered it as a scientific theory.
One of the greatest philosophers of science of our time, Sir Karl Popper, disagreed. According to his criterion of demarcation between science and metaphysics (non-science), a theory is scientific only when it can be empirically refuted - by observation or experiment.
Popper believed that psychoanalysis is compatible with every possible observation: if the patient agrees with the psychoanalist's interpretation, he proves it to be right. If the patient disagrees, it's only due to his resistances, which proves that the interpretation found some repressed area in his subconscious and therefore is right.
Despite the fact that this often happens in psychoanalysis and that supporters of the theory act in the dogmatic way which Popper ascribes to them, defending it against any contrary evidence, I think that psychoanalysis is scientific in the Popperian sense because it can be proven false.
In fact it has been proven false.
Its laboratory is the psychoanalist's couch itself. The psychoanalytic therapy should, according to the theory, help to restore mental health.
It has been amply shown that in the overwhelming majority of cases it doesn't. Often it leads to more lifelong misery and even suicide.
Ergo, the theory is false.
Patients have voted with their feet, and psychoanalysis has in the last few decades lost much of its credibility not just among its potential clients but among the public in general. Cinema and literature, in addition, once drew from psychoanalysis far more of their inspiration than they do now.
Even more, psychology scholars have increasingly abandoned their attraction to Sigmund Freud's ideas.
The progress of scientific psychology has helped disproving psychoanalysis, showing that the mind doesn't work in the way Freud believed.
The study of memory is a perfect case in point.
The dichotomy between "therapists" and scientific psychologists about the repressed and recovered memory versus false memories is exactly this. The former still think in Freudian terms, the latter don't.