Are repressed memories a thing? Cause I recently learned about them in my psych class and the book said that they're unlikely to actually be real and at best they're unreliable
Repressed memories are quite cotrovesial now, mostly because of the satanic ritual abuse controversy in the 1980s and research that suggests that memory can be manipulated and is therefore unreliable even under normal circumstances. Having said that, dissociative amnesia (also called psychogenic amnesia) is well documented and it’s well known that one of the ways our brains cope with trauma is to block it out. Both these terms describe very similar things, yet while the term ‘repressed memory’ has a lot of negative connotations, dissociative memory loss doesn’t (here’s a link to an article about dissociative amnesia, and you may like to compare the wiki article on psychogenic amnesia to the article on repressed memories).
One way of interpreting trauma responses that I think is really valuable is as a spectrum of responses with hyperarousal on one axis and dissociation on the other (I believe Bruce Perry created this). Hyperarousal responses are things like fighting back or running away, panic attacks, exaggerated startle response etc while dissociative responses are things like emotional numbing, the ‘freeze’ response, memory loss related to the trauma, and dissociation as the word is usually used (so feeling ‘unreal’ as if you’re dreaming, seeing yourself as if you were observing yourself etc).
In terms of how memory problems fit in with abuse, I think one of the main distinctions to be made is that many of the criticisms that posit memory as unreliable are talking about memory as evidence in a courtroom setting or legal context generally. Victims are often called unreliable if they change even a small detail of their recollection or have any conflicting memories, but trauma itself interferes with how we process information, including memory; we’re so focused on just surviving what’s going on, all our brain power goes toward that and very little is dedicated to creating new memories. Additionally, stress hormones (such as cortisol) interfere with the creation of new memories also. Additionally, our memories don’t have to be perfect to be true, but the way the legal system operates is frankly pretty awful yet legal standards have become general standards, which they shouldn’t be.
Another issue with this is the fact that these situations where memory is deemed unreliable - the legal system and the satanic abuse panic - are situations where other people are deliberately influencing the individual. This is very different to traumatic memories resurfacing on their own (as they often do with time); in these situations, the individual’s memory has been manipulated by other people who want them to believe what they want or say what they want.
So to summarise, it’s true that memory is changeable and can be unreliable depending on what it’s needed for. Precise information is generally difficult anyway but especially when there’s trauma involved, and people can manipulate others into having ‘false memories’; police are known to do this for example, as are many of the psychotherapists involved in the satanic abuse scandals. This is very different to memories which surface on their own and to memories about general events; even if our memories of our abuse aren’t exact, that doesn’t suggest that our abuse wasn’t real in any way.
If you take a look through the memory tag (you can click here to do that) there’s more information, links etc. I think what your psych book said is .. well, I can see where they’re coming from but they’re oversimplifying a very complex issue. The term ‘repressed memories’ is seen unfavourably but dissociative memory loss isn’t particularly controversial. I suspect - though I could be wrong - that this is more about the associations the different phrases carry, though they describe very similar things.