Repressed Memory Challenge Is Met

Mclean HospitalTwo members of the Biological Psychiatry Laboratory at Mclean Hospital (affiliated with Harvard) issued a challenge in 2005: they would give $1000 US to anyone could find an account of the repression of the memory of a traumatic event published prior to 1800. Their reasoning was “if dissociative amnesia for traumatic events were a natural psychological phenomenon, an innate capacity of the brain, then throughout the millennia before 1800, individuals would presumably have witnessed such cases and portrayed them in non-fictional works or in fictional characters. ” If no such accounts could be found, the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that “dissociative amnesia is not a natural neuropsychological phenomenon, but instead a culture-bound syndrome, dating from the nineteenth century.”

After a year, over 100 e-mail replies, and one 1782 “near miss” members of the lab (Pope, Poliakff, Parker, Boynes, & Hudson) concluded that no such example existed and published a paper in Psychological Medicine (2006) declaring the concept of repressed memory to have originated in Europe in the early 19th century.

Now, however, they have been forced to retract that conclusion (slightly) and have awarded their kilodollar prize for the libretto of the 1786 one-act opera, Nina, by the little-known composer Nicholas Dalayrac and librettist Marsollier. As Pope et al. describe the relevant portion of the plot:

Nina is in love with a suitor, Germeiul, and has her father’s approval to marry him. However, another much wealthier suitor appears at the last moment, and the father decides that she should instead marry the wealthy suitor. Nina is devastated. A duel ensues between Germeiul and the wealthy suitor, and to Nina’s horror, she sees Germeiul prostrate in a pool of blood. She faints and is carried home unconscious. She wakes to find her father presenting to her for marriage the wealthy suitor who has just murdered her beloved Germeiul. She becomes delirious[….]

Nina’s father, mortified at his daughter’s condition, sends her to his country estate to be taken care of by her old governess. But there, she displays amnesia for the loss of Germeiul:

Nina avoit tout-à-fait perdu le souvenir de ce funeste événemnt…elle le croit en voyage et sur le point de revenir. (Nina has totally lost the memory of this deadly event… she thinks that he [Germeiul] is traveling and on the verge of coming home)

Granted, 1786 isn’t very much before the start of the 19th century, but it was enough to claim the prize. The search continues for examples — medical or fictional — of repressed memory for significantly earlier.

Harvard Magazine published an article about the challenge this year.

Tip o’ the hat to Mind Hacks (again!) for alerting me to the outcome of the challenge.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

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