Can people recover memories of childhood experiences in adulthood, ones that they had never thought about since childhood? Can a powerful retrieval cue suddenly trigger a memory for some long-lost event? Although these questions are interesting, scientific evidence does not yet exist to answer them convincingly. Of course, people often do remember childhood experiences quite clearly, but these memories are usually of significant events that have been repeatedly retrieved over the years. The questions above, on the other hand, pertain to unique events that have not been repeatedly retrieved. Can people remember something when they are 40 years old that happened to them when they were 10 years old something that they have never thought about during the intervening 30 years?
Such questions take on renewed relevance in what is called the recovered memory controversy. Although the term recovered memory could be applied to retrieval of any memory from the distant past, it is normally used to refer to a particular type of case in contemporary psychology: the long-delayed recovery of sexual abuse in childhood. In a typical case, a person often, but not always, undergoing psychotherapy claims to recover a memory of some horrific childhood event. The prototypical case involves an adult woman recovering a memory of being sexually abused by a male figure from her childhood, such as being raped by a father, uncle, or teacher. Sometimes the memory is recovered suddenly, but often the recovery is gradual, occurring over days and weeks. After recovering the memory, the person may confront and accuse the individual deemed responsible, or even take the person to court. The accused person almost always vehemently denies the allegation and claims the events never took place. Whom is to be believed?
A huge debate swirls over the accuracy of recovered memories. Proponents of their accuracy believe in the theory of repression, which is discussed in a subsequent section of this article. According to this theory, memories for terrible events (especially of a sexual nature) can be repressed, or banished to an unconscious state. The memories may lie dormant for years, but with great effort and appropriate cues, they can be retrieved with relative accuracy. Critics point out that there is little evidence supporting the concept of repression, aside from some reports on individual cases. The critics believe that the processes that give rise to false memories suggestion and imagination may better explain the phenomenon of recovered memories.
Without corroborating evidence, there is no way to check the accuracy of recovered memories. Thus, even though people may sincerely believe they have recovered a memory of an event from their distant past, the event usually remains a matter of belief, not of fact. Because psychologists know so little about recovery of distant memories, even of normal experiences, the debate over recovered memories is not likely to be resolved soon. For more detail on the recovered memory controversy, see the sidebar “Recovered Memories and False Memories” in Encarta Encyclopedia Deluxe.