Traumatic events recalled with clarity

Dal study contradicts Freud's famous theory

- March 1, 2007

Dr. Steve Porter
Dr. Steve Porter in his office: "They were, in fact, haunted by what they experienced." (Pearce photo)

Was Freud wrong?

In the late 19th century, Sigmund Freud developed his famous theory about how some people recall horrific events. To cope, people repress memories of such events so their painful effects wonÕt have to be experienced over and over again.

But a new study by Dalhousie researchers Steve Porter and Kristine Peace suggests otherwise Ñ that victims can recall the details of traumatic events such as physical or sexual assault with as much clarity as the day they happened. Their study is due to be published in the journal Psychological Science.

ÒIf Freud was right, these would be the kind of events that people would try to push away,” says Dr. Porter, associate professor in the Department of Psychology. ÒPeople tried to push them away but were unable to do so. They were, in fact, haunted by what they experienced.”

On the other hand, the same study found peopleÕs recall of pleasant memories Ñ weddings, births, awards Ñ wasnÕt nearly as good.

ÒThe positive memories changed dramatically and began to look very little like the event itself,” says Dr. Porter. ÒSo, if people start to tell you about the good olÕ days, you might want to take that with a grain of salt.”

The findings are of particular interest for court cases that involve historical complaints of assault, abuse and violence.

"We can expect that traumatic criminal experiences can be recalled quite reliably over time," says Dr. Porter. "That doesn't mean there won't be some level of distortion. But the central details will be recalled quite well."

The study took place over five years. In 2000, researchers recorded the memories of participants concerning both a traumatic and positive memory. The participants were re-interviewed three months and five years later.  

Dr. PorterÕs research group (which includes graduate students Marcus Juodis and Sabrina Bellhouse, and honours students Leanne ten Brinke and Laura England) is now embarking on research on concealed emotions. The research, which will examine the facial expressions of people when theyÕre disguising their emotions, is supported by a Discovery grant from Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and an operating grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

For more information, see the website for the Porter Forensic Lab at Ñ DN


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