This is sort of related to this other question, except that here I am not asking whether the brain is viewed as being capable of repressing memories, but about any verified cases of where that has happened.

I was watching a documentary in which a psychiatrist said that an individual always remembers traumatic events, and that there is no evidence for the Freudian notion that the brain represses traumatic memories.

So here I specifically want to exclude as evidence solely from claims from people who say that they were abused as children but suppressed these memories (and consequently either did, or did not, develop multiple personalities).

What I am interested in is verified evidence of cases where a person suffered trauma but the memories of the trauma were repressed as per the Freudian notion. With this I mean that I also want to exclude cases where the individual learned to live with the past and consequently memories of the trauma faded because it no longer carried any emotional significance to the person.

I would appreciate references to academic literature or articles where the evidence is mentioned.

Does verified evidence for Freudian repression of traumatic memories exist?


I find this question very interesting, for this reason i did some digging.

Short answer

Yes, there're many studies about neurobiological implication of "repressed memories" and they underline how informations do not disappear. Through the mechanisms of complex neural processes, it is obvious that this information is exposed to various kinds of cellular and molecular operations. These processes can not be deleted. The brain never “forgets” at the cellular and molecular levels.(Mehmet Emin Ceylan, M.D., Aslıhan Sayın, M.D., 2012)

Long answer

In recent years, an effort has been made to identify the underlying neuroanatomical, neurophysiological and molecular underpinnings of psychoanalytical concepts like repression. The view that, every mental action is caused by a change in an identifiable neural system (or vice versa), is not surprising. Any decision we make, any feeling we have, is the result of activity in neural networks and molecular-level structures such as receptors, messenger systems, neurotransmitters etc. that are involved in the process of neurotransmission. Moreover, this fact applies not only to conscious mental activities, but also to mental activities that are not conscious. Everything that goes on in the brain affects our mind, but we are not consciously aware of everything that goes on in our mind. This situation is described by Freud as the equivalent of an unconscious mental process.

We know that repression is a defense mechanism that plays a role in the formation of unconscious mental activities and processes. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that repression must have a neural mechanism. The technology of Freud’s time was incapable of explaining the biological correlates of the mental processes described by his psychoanalytic theory. Today’s technological capabilities, advances in brain imaging methods, advanced methods in brain electrophysiology and molecular biology promise an opportunity to observe and analyze these mechanisms.

  1. Neural representation of the external event is bound by hippocampus
  2. Then, the LTP (long-term potentiation) process provides the neural mechanisms of consolidation, in which a particular external event becomes a lasting memory, which is the basis for long-term memory.
  3. While the hippocampus controls consciouss memory,the amygdala is required for the unconsciously associated vegetative reaction (Bechara et al., 1995).
  4. fMRI studies in post-traumatic stress disorder patients indicate that recall of traumatic events is associated with an increased activation of the amygdala and a reduced activation of the hippocampus
  5. It is reasonable to assume that repression must have a neural mechanism: The following study suggests that dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and especially its caudal part plays a major role for repression of childhood traumatic events. Possible molecular mechanism of memory erasure in repression is long term depression of glutamatergic neurotransmission between prefrontal cortex- thalamus- limbic system.


Neurobiology of Repression

Bechara, A., Tranel, D., Damasio, H., Adolphs, R., Rockland, C., Damasioa, A.R., 1995. Double dissociation of conditioning and declerative knowledge relative to the amigdala and hippocampus in humans. Science 269, 1115-1118.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you @Fil. Yes I do realize that memories do disappear, esp. in cases where they do not mean much to the individual or when insufficient effort has been put into memorizing something. So even though repression may exist as a general mechanism for such memories, actual trauma is different because of the meaning it carries to the individual. Does the cited literature include verified evidence of suppression of traumatic memories? $\endgroup$ – ravn Jun 27 '17 at 4:47
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    $\begingroup$ @ravn Yes. The article i linked to you contains a paragraph about "A Hypothesis for Neural Mechanism Underlying Repression: Role of DLPFC", DLPFC is dorsolateral prefrontal cortex that seems to be active in the suppression of traumatic events $\endgroup$ – Fil Jun 27 '17 at 9:16
  • $\begingroup$ Firstly, thank you very much for taking time to looking into this. I just think there are a couple of issues. The linked article is about a hypothesis for how repression could work and even their statement in the "Conclusion" seems rather weak as they state "We think that the behavioral experiments and neuroimaging data which are discussed above suggest that suppression and repression really exist." (continued...) $\endgroup$ – ravn Jul 16 '17 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ However while I do also believe that these mechanisms exist, the question was not about (1st paragraph) whether the brain was capable of suppression and/or repression, but about whether evidence exists of this specifically for traumatic memories (4th paragraph). The linked document focused on the possible mechanism for how it could happen and did not link to any independent evidence of it. Although I would suspect that there could be some evidence somewhere (e.g. through law enforcement involvement) I did not see it through the study in that document. $\endgroup$ – ravn Jul 16 '17 at 14:00

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