Lost and Found Memories of Trauma

How, why, and where we store memories are complex processes only partially understood. We briefly discussed the types and stages of memory, what normal forgetting is, the types of amnesias and how tv and books get it wrong , and the most feared type of forgetting—dementias . But there’s another type of forgetting we have not yet discussed. The complex issue of lost and found memories of trauma, better known as repressed memories or recovered memories, has been fraught with bitter controversy. Relatively recent research and discoveries shed some light on what happens.

Trigger Warning: This article does not go into descriptions, but topics discussed include abuse, sexual abuse, childhood traumas and childhood sexual abuse. If those are trigger issues for you, give this article a pass.

image of five polaroid pictures with without images. The black squares represent the lost portion of lost and found memories of trauma

The Definition

Although courts and legislatures use the term repressed memory, the proper term is dissociative amnesia. This is the definition that appears in the DSM-IV, section 300.12: “Dissociative amnesia is characterized by an inability to recall important personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature, that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness.”

Alan W. Scheflin Psychiatric Times

Repressed Memory vs False Memory

Since the late 1980s there have been huge questions and bitter debate between believers and deniers. And very little proof existed for either side.

Academics and therapists and psychiatrists lined up on both sides. The courts were told by many “experts” that hypnosis and other therapies contaminated memories. Then in the 1990s the courts were told that repressed memory does not exist. Experts claimed that “false memories” could be created accidentally or maliciously. They testified that memory is untrustworthy. That lost and found memories must be false.

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation

In 1992 Pamela and Peter Freyd became strong proponents of the deniers side. Their adult daughter accused Peter of childhood sexual abuse. He denied it. They founded the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. It provided support for family members “falsely” accused of abuse. It also highlighted memory research that “proved” they could create false memories. One such researcher was Elizabeth Loftus.

Elizabeth Loftus

Loftus “is best known for her ground-breaking work on the misinformation effect and eyewitness memory, and the creation and nature of false memories.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Loftus Her initial research focused on the reliability of eyewitness memory. Her research and laboratory experiments determined that leading questions might alter people’s memories of events. She appeared in hundreds of courts and gave expert testimony about the unreliablity of memory in violent crimes.

In the 1990s she shifted her research to recovered memories of sexual abuse. But ethically, she could not “create” memories of major trauma (such as child sexual abuse) in volunteers.

One of her students developed the “Lost in the Mall” test. This test attempted to introduce “memories” in adult volunteers of being lost in the mall as a child. Twenty-nine percent of their volunteers developed a memory of being lost in the mall as a child. Loftus called this false memory.

Do Recovered Memories Exist?

image of trees in a fog when the fog represents the lost and found memories of trauma

Those who believe repressed memories do not exist argue that memory is inaccurate and that most people don’t forget traumatic memories. This is true as far as it goes. But it doesn’t address pertinent questions: do recovered memories exist and are repressed memories always false?

In 1995 a pair of scientists, Pope and Hudson, proposed that “to reject the null hypothesis and demonstrate ‘repression,’ one need only exhibit a series of individuals who display clear and lasting amnesia for known experiences too traumatic to normally forgettable.” 

Research studies by Brown and colleagues (1999) met the Pope and Hudson criteria and found repressed memories exist. However, critics argued that the studies were faulty. So they redid the studies multiple times, following more and more rigorous study protocols. Each study concluded that recovered memories exist. Further, they showed that many of the studies done to disprove the existence of repressed memories do not address the issue of amnesia and some reveal dissociative amnesia in their volunteers.

Other studies tested the accuracy of recovered memories. These studies found the accuracy to be no more and no less than normal memory. In other words, all memories are subject to an individual’s personal knowledge, experience, and emotional understanding.

The Case of Jane Doe

In 1997, David L. Corwin published a paper, Videotaped Discovery of a Reportedly Unrecallable Memory of Child Sexual Abuse: Comparison with a Childhood Interview Videotaped 11 Years Before. 

In his paper he reports that during her parents’ divorce a four-year-old girl accused her mother of sexual abuse. Two years later, the now six-year-old underwent a forensic exam. Corwin, as per the law, videotaped her interview and detailed description of the abuse. 

The girl’s mother lost custody. The child lived with her father until he had a stroke and had to be in long-term care. At that point, the girl went into foster care. She longed for her real family. At 17 she remembered being told that she was in a videotaped interview that had to do with her custody case but had forgotten what she’d said on the tape. She contacted Corwin. She wanted to watch the tape. When she arrived, she agreed to a videotaped interview. Her sudden recovery of her memory happened on tape.

In 2017, Jane Doe revealed herself and talked about her experience of repressed memory in The Guardian. In that article, she also discusses how Elizabeth Loftus uncovered her identity and adversely affected her life.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford

Recently, when Dr Christine Blasey Ford, a research psychologist, testified against Judge Brett Kavanaugh she was questioned and doubted about her incomplete memory. She was asked how she could be sure. She responded:

It’s just basic memory functions, and also just the level of norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain that … encodes memories into the hippocampus so that trauma-related experience is locked there [while] other memories just drift

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford

The Argument Continues

The Association for Psychological Science published an article in December 2013 that showed the subject of repressed memories remained a topic of controversy.

“Roughly 60-80% of clinicians, psychoanalysts, and therapists surveyed agreed to some extent that traumatic memories are often repressed and can be retrieved in therapy, compared to less than 30% of research-oriented psychologists.”

Scientists and Practitioners Don’t See Eye to Eye on Repressed Memory

Splitting Hairs?

Most clinicians and memory researchers believe most survivors of child sexual abuse remember all or part of what happened to them, although “they may not fully understand or disclose it.

They believe it’s rare, but that a spontaneous recovery of these memories can happen. However, they also agree that convincing “pseudo-memories” for events that never happened are real.


Despite the efforts of researchers and the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, false memory syndrome is not now and has never been a diagnosis accepted by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

In 2019, the FMSF put an announcement in the footer of their website. The announcement? They planned to close the foundation down as of December 31, 2019. “The need for the FMS Foundation diminished dramatically over the years. The FMSF website and Archives will continue to be available.”

Get Help

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.


Image of a skeleton key with a tag labeling it memories, lost and found memories of trauma are like lost or misplaced keys.

If you’ve read my dystopian suspense story, My Soul to Keep, you know I believe repressed memories are real and valid. I believe the “proof” of false memories based on the “Mall Test” are invalid. It fails because children are “lost” in the mall or while shopping daily. The period of being lost usually is only a moment or two but, the study does not consider this.  

Have you ever “lost” your keys? You thought you remembered where you put them, but they aren’t there. When you do find them you remember, yes that was where you put them. That, folks, is a recovered memory. If we can forget and recover memories over a brief period of time, it certainly can happen over longer periods of time.


Do lost and found memories (recovered) exist? Science seems to prove it does and it doesn’t. If you’re confused, you’re not alone.

We’ve learned a lot about memory in this series of blog posts. And we’ve only covered a simplified explanation of these things. Scientists do not understand recovered memory, aka dissociative amnesia, well. Clearly more research is needed. But the opportunity for the study of recovered memories of child sexual abuse are rare. And the ability to prove or disprove the abuse is even rarer.

Most attempts to prove or disprove recovered memories end up in a “he said-she said” argument. The lost and found memory of trauma continues to defy survivors, clinicians, the courts, and memory researchers. What do you think?

What Do You Remember and How?

What do you remember and how do you remember one thing and your sibling remembers something else? Human memory is complex. We try to replicate it with computers and A.I. Technology. But we barely understand how human memory works. Or where we store our memories. Or how and what corrupts our memory. Scientific examination and study of memory only began in recent history. 

Image of a brain with lightning coming out of it illustrates memory retrieval but do you understand what you do remember and how

The Study of Memory

The scientific study of memory didn’t begin until fairly late in human history. Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850–1909), a German psychologist, pioneered the study of memory. The “father of experimental psychology of memory” began his first experiment in late 1878. He published his study, Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology (Über das Gedächtnis in the original German), in 1885. They published the English version in 1913.

His study had many limitations. The major one being that his only subject was himself. But he made many discoveries: the forgetting curve, spacing effect, and the learning curve. You can read more about his discoveries on Wikipedia or on Flash Card Learner.

What is Memory?

Even our everyday definition of memory is complex. Memory is—

1a: the power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained especially through associative mechanisms–began to lose his memory as he grew older

b: the store of things learned and retained from an organism’s activity or experience as evidenced by modification of structure or behavior or by recall and recognition–has a good memory for faces

2a: commemorative remembrance–erected a statue in memory of the hero

b: the fact or condition of being remembered–days of recent memory

3a: a particular act of recall or recollection–has no memory of the event

b: an image or impression of one that is remembered–fond memories of her youth

c: the time within which past events can be or are remembered–within the memory of living men

4a: a device (such as a chip) or a component of an electronic device (such as a computer or smartphone) in which information can be inserted and stored and from which it may be extracted when wanted–especially: RAM

b: capacity for storing information–512 megabytes of memory

5: a capacity for showing effects as the result of past treatment or for returning to a former condition—used especially of a material (such as metal or plastic)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

According to Boundless Psychology there is a simpler definition. Memory is “the ability of an organism to record information about things or events with the facility of recalling them later at will.”

Stages of Memory

The three stages of memory are encoding, storage, and retrieval.

Encoding is the process of receiving, processing, and combining information. 

Storage is the process by which we keep memory for a time. 

The third stage of memory, retrieval, is also called recall or recognition. Something triggers us to recall a memory and use it in a process or activity.

Types of Memory

Scientists have identified three major types of memory: Sensory, Short Term, and Long Term. 

Sensory memory is a detailed representation of an entire sensory experience. It is not a conscious process. There are many types of sensory memories. The most frequently studied include iconic (visual) memories, echoic (auditory) memories, and haptic (tactile) memories.

Short Term Memory, also known as working memory, lasts for about twenty seconds. We can only store about five to nine “items” in short term memory. However, we can move these items to long-term memory via what scientists call rehearsal. Rehearsal or repetition is the act of repeating the memory over and over. 

Long Term memory includes anything we hold in memory for longer than twenty seconds. Scientists have identified many types of long-term memory, too many to discuss in a brief, introductory blog post. 

More to Come

This blog post is a brief introduction into what you remember and how. Over the next few months we’ll look deeper into the mystery and complexities of memories retained and lost.

I find human memory fascinating. The lack of and haunting presence of memory plays a part in my series, My Soul to Keep. In the next few posts, we’ll touch on diseases of memory. Diseases you may be interested in like Alzheimer’s and dementia and White Matter disease. And if you’re interested, we’ll discuss trauma-induced memory loss. Do you have other questions or topics regarding memory that you’d like me to discuss?

More than a Game

When I was a child, about eight- or nine-years-old, my mother went to the hospital to have her third child. My brother and I were packed off to an aunt and uncle’s house. There we got involved in a game that was more than a game.


Now, this aunt and uncle had five children. The two oldest were off to college. The two youngest were about the same age as my brother and I. The middle child was a teenager, uninterested and uninvolved in the lives of children.

My aunt and uncle’s old farmhouse held an attic with two bedroom spaces, each holding a pair of bunk beds. The second-floor held four more bedrooms. A living room, kitchen, dining room, and den made up the first floor. And there was a basement, the realm of the children. The basement had several rooms of bookcases and cabinets and a door to the outside.

Outside was a wonder. A  grape arbor and an orchard gave us plenty of room to be rowdy kids running around.

The three boys and I invented an adventure game. Being the only girl, I was the heroine or the damsel in distress, depending on the turn of the play. The boys were the heroes and occasional victims. The evil villain was invisible, an unknown who left threatening notes. We dashed in and out of the basement, zig-zagged through the spooky fruit trees and grabby grape vines, uncovered clues and threatening notes, did heroic deeds, and wore ourselves out with fun.


Memory fails to recall what quieter activities filling the evening after our meal. What I remember is climbing upstairs to the attic bedroom, into the lower bunk, and falling fast asleep.

I woke gasping for air. Ice cold hands were around my throat, choking me! I couldn’t see who the cloaked villain was but screamed for help. The three boys rushed to the room and pounded the villain with their fists. Lights came on, the villain disappeared. I sobbed my tale of fear to my aunt and uncle.

The boy heroes identified the dastardly villain as my teen-aged cousin. My aunt and uncle punished him. They soothed me. The visit was short (probably not to my aunt and uncle). My brother and I went home and welcomed our new baby sister.

Today, I feel bad for my teenaged cousin. He took the game a little too far, perhaps, yet, the choking was minimal and momentary, or I wouldn’t have been able to scream.  Looking back, I was frightened, but the fright was temporary.  I have a fun-to-tell memory, my brother and cousins got to be real heroes, and I got a story, two blog posts, and a novel out of the adventure!

What do you recall fondly? Childhood memories? Adventures as a Teen? Trials and Tribulations of being an adult? Were any of your experiences more than a game? Any lessons you learned from these? Please share your story below in the comments below.