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Forgot to remember to forget.

Memory researcher Jonathan W. Schooler noticed a curious phenomenon as he investigated the cases of seven adults who reported recovered memories of being sexually abused as kids.

After finding corroborating evidence for each of the alleged sexual assaults, the University of Pittsburgh scientist came across a peculiar memory realignment in two women. He discovered that each had talked to her former husband about having experienced childhood abuse but did not recall having done so when, years later, emotion-laden memories of the events suddenly surfaced.

In all seven cases, the intense recollections of past abuse arose in response to an unexpected memory cue--such as a friend mentioning child molestation, Schooler says. The emotional crush of these insights unleashed vivid memories, which participants then incorporated into coherent accounts of the events.

At the same time, these wrenching discoveries led the two women to assume that they could not previously have remembered such disturbing material in a purely factual way, Schooler contends. He notes that their former spouses said that the women had spoken to them of childhood abuse incidents in an unexpressive, matter-of-fact way.

Schooler calls this the "forgot-it-all-along" effect. It starkly illustrates how memories are reinterpreted in light of new knowledge. In fact, the Pittsburgh researcher refers to the sudden recall of past traumatic events as discovered, not recovered, memories. Some of these discoveries may not be authentic, in his view. Even genuine ones may eliminate a person's recognition of what was previously recalled about the event.

In several cases that Schooler investigated, victims said they had completely forgotten about sexual-abuse incidents hours or days after they had occurred. Such claims have ignited great controversy (SN: 9/18/93, p. 184). However, comparable memory wipeouts often occur when people forget emotionally disturbing dreams shortly after awakening, Schooler contends.

"I've created as many false memories [in laboratory experiments] as the next person," he says. "But it's possible to have an authentic discovered memory of childhood sexual abuse."
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Title Annotation:repressed memories of abuse
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jun 19, 1999
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