Was Repressed Memory a 19th-Century Creation?

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 26, 2007

There is a pain -- so utter

It swallows substance up

Then covers the Abyss with Trance

So Memory can step around -- across. . . .

Emily Dickinson wrote those lovely words sometime in the middle of the 19th century, probably after a love affair broke her heart. Over the next century and a half, that same idea found its way into countless books, plays and movies -- when a memory becomes too painful to bear, the mind finds a way to seal it off, to "step around -- across."

But when researchers recently mounted an exhaustive effort to find examples of trauma-related amnesia in literary works before the 19th century, they drew a blank. If repressed memories are one way the brain deals with painful memories, why would there be no literary examples of the phenomenon that are more than 200 years old?

In an unusual study, a group of psychiatrists and literary scholars, led by Harrison Pope of Harvard Medical School, recently argued that the psychiatric disorder known as dissociative amnesia (often called repressed memory) is a "culture-bound syndrome" -- a creation of Western culture sometime in the 19th century.

Pope pointed out that Shakespeare, Homer and other pre-19th-century writers show numerous characters suffering from other psychiatric disorders: the disjointed thinking that we call schizophrenia, or the persistent sadness that marks depression. Because art draws its inspiration from life, Pope said, this shows that those disorders have been around forever. In the opening lines of "The Merchant of Venice," for example, Antonio vividly describes what it feels like to be depressed:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:

It wearies me; you say it wearies you;

But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,

What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born

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