[] How does the brain repress memories and not let people remember entire parts of their lives?



[] How does the brain repress memories and not let people remember entire parts of their lives?

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Just to make clear “repressed memories” isn’t a medically sound diagnosis. There are known issues related to people struggling with memories around a traumatic event or time.

The two more common issues are:

Denial- Something really traumatic happens and as a protective measure, your brain won’t allow a solid memory to form the way a pleasant memory would. Your brain is literally denying an event ever happened.

Diassociation- During a traumatic event your brain refuses to accept it/checks out. You kinda start experiencing the event like someone watching a movie, it’s not really happening to you. At it’s most extreme you can lose time all together and your understanding of what happened can differ extremely from the reality of it.


The idea of “repressed memories” is hotly debated within professional circles, and people should be wary of “memory retrieval” therapies as they haven’t been proven 100% sound and false memories are a known phenomenon.

In disassociation and denial, your brain is still forming memories, they just don’t look 100% right. Sort of the difference between a photograph of something and a stick figure drawing you are trying to do with your non-dominant hand.

There are certain cameras that constantly record, much like your brain, however because of storage issues, it wipes if an event doesn’t occur in a certain amount of time. You basically remember certain events that for some reason you found notable, and forgot the other nonessential parts. There are select few who can remember everything but I can’t explain that one.


Memories aren’t like video recordings that you can rewatch, with the file being exactly representative of what you recorded every time you open it.

A memory is more like 1000s of little Christmas lights that activate into a recognisable ‘image’ when you push the button.

Following that analogy, the brain can ‘disconnect’ the lights from the electricity so it doesn’t form the lightshow when you push the button. Or the brain didn’t write down how the lights were arranged at the time so it doesn’t know how to put them back together. Or it messed up the arrangement or wiring so it either looks like something else or only part of it lights up giving an incomplete image.


I’ve never had a good memory and I’ve always been stressed that something happened to me when I was little that’s making me suppress all these memories. I don’t THINK that’s what happened and I have no reason to other than I just have a horrible memory. I have a pretty bad phobia that’s affected me most of my life, is it possible that could be a cause of my inability to remember my life a lot? Or possibly I just never focused enough to ever make a memory in the first place?


It’d also be interesting to know why some traumatic events are forgotten/repressed but others burn with fiery detail many years later.


Think of it like how the body works. If you get a splinter, your body will push it out. If you have something that can’t be pushed out, the body will calcify it, covering that object to protect itself from it and separate the object from the body. Your brain does that with trauma sometimes. It will push that memory out so you only really have an impression that it was ever there, or it will cover it and make it hazy/cloudy and feel like it’s not yours. Denial is pushing it out. Dissociation is covering it up and making it feel like it’s not yours.


I see a bunch of takes on psychology, which isn’t really all that related to the actual brain. So, here’s a more (simplified) neurological explanation.

Imagine your brain is a spiderweb in the shape of a pyramid. There’s an “entrypoint” at one end, that’s the tip of the pyramid, and then the strands of the web all meet together in various ways in the middle until you get to the base of the pyramid. Stuff is connected all over the place to make the web’s joints.

So, imagine the entrypoint is “stimuli”. That’s all sorts of things. The stuff you see, hear, feel, taste, smell. That’s all coming in through the entrypoint. And depending on what comes in, it bounces around to different joints, interacting with them. Once it does this, the combination of the joints that got interacted with forms a thought or memory. Like an encoding. You activate this particular set of joints to get the idea of abicycle. You change one joint, maybe it changes to a unicycle or something that you’ve learned to associate very closely to a bike. You change a bunch of joints and it’s something totally different, like your parents or the sun. Whatever. The more similar the pattern that gets touched, the more related the thoughts, generally speaking.

That’s how your brain (in a contrived sort of way) operates. But the stimuli isn’t the ONLY thing affecting that. There’s your nervous system, which gives your brain feedback. So, for instance, if your nervous system is triggered when you think of a stove in a particular way, you panic when you think about it, rather than just think “I can cook spaghetti on that”. There’s also hormones and neurotransmitters and yada, yada.

Also, your brain is a very, very interesting organ in that it can affect itself. One region of the brain can learn how to trigger another region. Even affect the stimuli it actually gets. Warp it before it gets there, or change the way it responds. Think of it like playing a game of telephone, where you stand in a line and whisper to the person next to you the secret message. Sometimes you get someone in the middle who messes up the message on purpose. It totally eliminates any chance of the people behind that person getting the correct message at all.

It’s a very complicated mechanism, but you could have the combination of your nervous system, hormones, neurotransmitters and even other parts of your own brain affecting the way thoughts are associated and recalled. Even to the degree of suppressing them altogether or distorting them horribly to something that your brain has learned to find more palatable. This is all based on the cycle of stimuli that goes through your entire body.

Unfortunately, the brain does not function in isolation. So the mechanism is excessively complicated. But, very, very neat.


Researchers have found little evidence of repressed memories where memories of entire parts of someone’s lives are missing and recovered by therapies like hypnosis or leading questions. Repression is more typically like the avoidance of recalling memories that sometimes occur as part of PTSD or similar disorders.


It probably rarely does. It’s a popular theme in movies but there are serious doubts that it really happens or that it happens often. However, there is an extremely popular panic about childhood sexual abuse which claims it happens frequently but there is reason to believe that the notion of repressed memories may in fact be false memories induced by suggestions from therapists aided by the prevalence of this notion in popular culture.

For a striking example, read about the Margaret Kelly Michaels case: [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wee_Care_Nursery_School_abuse_trial](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wee_Care_Nursery_School_abuse_trial) .

TLDR; a day-care teacher served five years of a 47-year sentence based on preposterous allegations by children under her care – including things like allegations of animal sacrifice, including sacrifice of a giraffe (!). These allegations appear to have been induced by social workers and therapists planting false memories in children under the mistaken notion that they were uncovering abuse.

Scientists have discovered that our brains are actually wired to forget things.

For example, when I went to get the mail today, there was a guy walking his dog. I remember that. I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what he looked like beyond “generic white dude” or what his dog looked like or the color of the leash.

If our brain held on to mundane details like that, we would drive ourselves crazy.

Now, just like there are people who can remember everything, there are people who forget a whole bunch too.

Not a full explanation here but it’s important to know that human memory isn’t like a computer where it’s “stored” in one spot to be retrieved later, it’s more of a chain reaction between different parts of your brain – both for forming the memory and for drawing it up.

So when a memory is “repressed” it’s probably because a person has avoided thinking about it and withdrawn from that context so the signals their brain receives in a regular day don’t trigger that chain reaction to recreate that memory.

You have to remember (LOL) the body is a finely tuned machine wired for survival.

Memories are connections made in the brain. During a normal memory making experience, everything is running smoothly … all your chemical reactions are good, your synapses are firing normally etc.

In a trauma situation, your body is programmed to shut down unnecessary reactions and processes. Fight or flight and all that. Now, the way your brain processes information has changed.

Every time you access a memory, even the first time, it’s a highly subjective look at what happened. If you see a red car but you think to yourself that it’s a blue car and even say no red … the next time you might remember it as a blue car because a connection has been made in your brain about a blue car. The next time you access that memory, you’re pretty sure it was blue and the time after that… it WAS blue.

Now, add in chemicals the body throws at your brain to insure your survival during trauma. Your synapses are not functioning normally. The body doesn’t care about your feelings … it cares about survival. It doesn’t care that you need to remember bad things so you can report them. It cares that it got a fight or flight request and it’s flooded your brain with whatever it needed to survive the trauma.

Later, you might sense something with one of your senses that sparks a reaction in one of the connections that was made while your body had basically roofied you to carry out the task of survival. You struggle to make that connection stronger. Remember every memory is a copy of that same memory so even if it seems stronger … the quality actually degrades, just like a copy of a copy of a copy made on a copier. It may not be faulty … it might be close but it will never be exactly as it happened.

People who are depressed suffer from memory loss, probably because the brain’s anxiety response is constantly activated. Add in low-quality sleep and boom … hello forgetfulness, goodbye memories. Of course, they always talk about short-term memory loss as a depression symptom but I’m here to tell you it can cause the loss of old memories too. This is going to be the same response the brain gives you from a trauma … or something that was wonderful (because chemicals flood your brain when good things happen too).

It’s hard to accept that what we KNOW to be true probably isn’t exactly true. Our memories of good times … probably not exactly correct. Our memories of ordering lunch … probably not perfect. And that’s during every day autopilot living. Once you add in stress, anxiety, trauma and other people’s inputs (no matter how much or how little), your brain has made connections so fast and sometimes kind of in the background of our consciousness.

It’s also hard to accept that we’re not the masters of our destiny 24/7/365. Your body and brain especially makes decisions for you all the time, in order to give itself the best chances of survival. When we start fucking with it (chemically mostly) is when it gets confused and things go wonky. I’m not just talking drugs and booze … I’m talking about whatever your personal addiction is that gives you a thrill … food, sex, roller coasters LOL … whatever.

So basically, your body wants to survive, drugs you with chemicals it makes in our body and doesn’t care about non-essential synaptic connections we might find useful later on because it’s busy keeping us alive.

Edit: fat finger mistake

A lot of people in this thread are saying we don’t have any science to back up the idea of repressed memories, but I don’t think that’s true. Memory encoding/decoding has been shown to be state-dependent, so many memories are difficult to access unless the subject is in a similar state to the one they were in when they created the memory. There is a lot of good research on this.

The one I’m linking is interesting because it seems to be saying that fear memories are literally encoded in a neurologically different manner than regular memories and can not be accessed unless the subject is in a similar state of stress. That would certainly explain a lot of “repressed” memories. It’s like listening to FM, but you also have AM which you have to switch over to to hear. It’s still there.

I have definitely experienced memories that pop up only of I am in a similar situation or have a very strongly associated stimulus. I could have eaten something as a child and never thought about it, but if I eat it again, the memories come flooding back. It wasn’t “repressed” but it might never have “surfaced”. Everything is associated. There is definitely scientific research to indicate that things can be effectively disassociated, or rather associated with an entirely different, alternative set of associations.

Time will tell.

[How traumatic memories hide in the brain, and how to retrieve them](https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150817132325.htm)