‘Repressed Memory’ Challenge

$1000 reward to anyone who can produce a published case of “repressed memory” (in fiction or non-fiction) prior to 1800

Our research suggests that the concept of “repressed memory” or “dissociative amnesia” might be simply a romantic notion dating from the 1800s, rather than a scientifically valid phenomenon. To test this hypothesis, we are offering a reward of $1000 to the first person who can find a description of “repressed memory” in any written work, either nonfiction or fiction (novels, poems, dramas, epics, the Bible, essays, medical treatises, or any other sources), in English or in any work that has been translated into English, prior to 1800. We would argue that if “repressed memory” were a genuine natural phenomenon that has always affected people, then someone, somewhere, in the thousands of years prior to 1800, would have witnessed it and portrayed it in a non-fictional work or in a fictional character.

To qualify as a bona fide case, the individual described in the work must: 1) experience a severe trauma (abuse, sexual assault, a near-death
experience, etc.); and 2) develop amnesia for that trauma for months or years afterwards (i.e. be clearly unable to remember the traumatic event as opposed to merely denying or avoiding the thought); where 3) the amnesia cannot be explained by biological factors, such as a) early childhood amnesia — in which the individual was under age five at the time of the trauma, or b) neurological impairment due to head injury, drug or alcohol intoxication, or biological diseases. Also, the individual must 4) “recover” the lost memory at some later time, even though the individual had previously been unable to access the memory. Finally, note 5) that the individual must selectively forget a traumatic event; amnesia for an entire period of time, or amnesia for non-traumatic events does not qualify.

There are numerous examples of “repressed memory” in fiction and nonfiction after 1800. A literary example that fulfills all of the above criteria is Penn, in Rudyard Kipling’s 1896 novel, Captains Courageous, who develops complete amnesia for having lost his entire family in a tragic flood. He later goes to work as a fisherman on a Grand Banks schooner. On one occasion, after a tragic collision between an ocean liner and another schooner at sea, Penn suddenly recovers his lost memory of the flood and the death of his family, and recounts the story to other members of the crew.

At present, we have been unable to find any cases of “repressed memory,” meeting the above criteria, in any work prior to 1800. We offer a prize of $1000 to the first person who can do so. Please contact us with any questions or candidate cases at harrisonpope@mclean.harvard.edu

The first successful respondent, if any, will receive a check for $1000 from the Biological Psychiatry Laboratory, and the successful case will be posted on this website. In the event of any dispute (i.e., a respondent who disagrees with us as to whether a case meets the above 5 criteria), Scott Lukas, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry (Pharmacology) at Harvard Medical School, has agreed to arbitrate. Dr. Lukas has no involvement in the debate surrounding “repressed memory” and has never published in this area; thus he represents an impartial arbitrator. We have agreed to abide by Dr. Lukas’ decision in the case of any dispute.

Harrison G. Pope, Jr., M.D., M.P.H.
James I. Hudson, M.D., Sc.D.
Directors, Biological Psychiatry Laboratory
McLean Hospital
Belmont, MA 02478

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