How do our brains suppress traumatic experiences? And why?


For example, if something awful happens to you as a kid but you thought you weren’t affected by it, how does it come out in other forms later?

In: Other

When you experience a traumatic experience your brain will try to combat the experience and the memory by using a defense mechanism. We all have these, and they are used to help up carry on with everyday life. Imagine if you saw someone get killed right in front of you for now reason. After this may may start thinking that you could get killed at any time for any reason. You would start to become a recluse, never go outside or interact with anyone for your own survival. Your will try to do an amazing thing here, you may rationalize what you saw – that person must have had some reason to get killed, or that happened to them but it couldn’t happen to me (denial). This is a defense mechanism designed to get you living a normal life again.

Here’s a link to defense mechanisms. I think this is very good information to know in general.

[defense mechanisms link](

This is kind of difficult to explain, since we don’t really know the mechanisms behind stuff like this, but I’ll give a simplified explanation.

The main brain structure responsible for memory is called the hippocampus. Individuals with a damaged or destroyed hippocampus struggle to or cannot form new memories, and there is overwhelming evidence that at the neural level, connections in the hippocampus are what allow us to form new memories.

The hippocampus has widespread connections with a nearby structure called the amygdala. The amygdala does too many things to explain in a short time, but suffice it to say that you tend to see amygdala activation in extremely stressful or frightening moments. There’s evidence that extreme activation in the amygdala results in the failure if the hippocampus to properly form a “memory.” This is why when we are extremely stressed or frightened, we tend not to remember the situation very well.

This explanation is superficial and probably not very satisfying, but we just… don’t know that much about the brain, or how it works. We can answer these questions in a general scale, but once we dive into specifics it becomes a mess of different ideas.

I’m currently reading Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker and he suggests that REM-sleep plays a role in processing trauma, by basically removing the “emotional” content from the memories. It doesn’t answer your question fully but it’s an interesting starting point.

For reference –

Actually, from what I’ve read, the idea that people tend to suppress traumatic memories isn’t scientifically supported.
To cite: “The 1980s saw the peak of an idea that was never based in science: the notion that people can suppress memories of traumatic events and those repressed memories can manifest as seemingly unconnected mental health issues, such as anxiety or eating disorders. The idea was popularized by the book The Courage to Heal (1988), in which the authors took the position that their therapy clients, especially women, who had such issues should be encouraged to recover memories of abuse, and if such memories could be dredged up, then they were real.

The concept of repressed memories led in part to the satanic panic of the 1980s, and many of those subjected to recovering techniques “remembered” not only being abused but also being part of satanic ritual abuse.

Recovered memory syndrome was a massive failure on the part of the mental health profession. The ideas, which were extraordinary, were never empirically demonstrated. Further, basic questions were insufficiently asked: Is there any empirical evidence to support the incredible events emerging from therapy, for example? Is it possible that the recovered memories are an artifact of therapy and are not real?

Now, with three decades of hindsight, we can say a few things with a high degree of confidence. Recovered memory syndrome is mostly, if not entirely, a fiction. People generally do not repress memories of extreme trauma (the existence of rare exceptions remains controversial). Further, as Elizabeth Loftus pointed out, memories are constructed and malleable things. Also, independent investigations by the FBI, other law enforcement agencies, and scholars never found any evidence of the satanic ritual abuse, murders, and other atrocities emerging in recovered memory sessions. The events simply never happened.

What emerged from the entire sad episode was an increased understanding of what is now called false memory syndrome, the construction of entirely fake memories. This is accomplished through guided imagery, hypnosis, suggestion, and group pressure. These techniques violate one of the basic rules of investigation: Never lead someone by putting words in their mouth. This is especially important if the person is vulnerable and confused.

While there is some legitimate controversy over whether it is even possible to repress such memories and accurately recall them later, there is no question that the massive repressed-memory industry of the 1980s and ’90s was not evidence-based.”

edit: [wish i’d read response this before bothering to comment]( 🙂

They dont. its a movie trope.

the problem with traumatic experiences is precisely that they refuse to be suppressed as per the typical PTSD attack. (vietnam flashback).

here’s one article:

also -slightly off topic but relevant i think:
there was a thing in the 80s(?) that some Psychologists believed they could use special techniques (i think it was like a questioning/visualisation method) that would bring out suppressed memories of abuse in children.
People went to jail as a result of the memories being recalled by the children.

Turns out, the techniques were actually implanting false memories and none of the abuse ever happened.