FORGETTING AND REPRESSION
How we remember is an old and unsolved question, but few people think of asking how we forget: and yet one problem is as important as the other. I cannot answer either except by putting a new one, which is, ‘Do we ever forget?’
If we specify the factors concerned in memory and say that it depends upon impression, retention, and recall, then what do we mean by ‘forgetting’? If an event makes no impression upon the mind there is neither remembering nor forgetting; if there is retention of a memory, but one cannot recall it, it is nevertheless stored in the mind and may yet be revived by some association. So that the only certain factor in forgetting is the loss of power of recall, for what is apparently quite forgotten may still be retained in the unconscious.
Can we voluntarily forget? If by that is meant, ‘Can we voluntarily lose the power of voluntary recall?’ I must, strange as it seems at first sight, assert that we can, though I make the proviso that ‘voluntarily’ is a word with a very elastic meaning, and one whose definition would open up the never-ended argument about Free-will. I will take refuge in a quotation:–
‘We ought not to assume that a clear and full anticipation or idea of the end is an essential condition of purposive action, and we have no warrant for setting up the instances in which anticipation is least incomplete as alone conforming to the purposive type, and for setting apart all instances in which anticipation is less full and definite as of a radically different nature.’
[Footnote 4: McDougall, _Social Psychology_, p. 359.]
Expressing this idea in the terms employed in the previous chapters, we can picture an action as being produced by motives in consciousness, and these motives as being influenced to a greater or less extent by the instincts, emotions, and desires of the unconscious. Every action is influenced by the unconscious, however voluntary it may appear. The young man who seeks the society of a maiden may think he is acting voluntarily and with full consciousness of the end in view, but the end is often visualised by the friends of the pair before the young man realises where his instincts and emotions have led him.
The man who resolutely refuses to think of an unpleasant experience and shuts off the thought of it whenever it rises into his consciousness may not have the intention of placing it beyond reach of voluntary recall, but he may succeed in so doing, and the process by which the end was reached was voluntary. That we have this power is shown by the investigation of war-strained soldiers of the type said to be suffering from ‘shell-shock’. These men are often stout fellows who have fought long and bravely, and whose condition is a result of the emotions they have suffered rather than of any particular shell explosion. Their typical symptoms are depression, dreams of battle horrors, tremors and stammerings, and strange fears without apparent cause.
In an ordinary case there is great difficulty in persuading the man to talk about his war experiences: he says plainly that he doesn’t want to talk about them, or may persistently avoid the subject, or he gives a poor account and shows difficulty in recall, or he claims to have forgotten and requires stimulating in order to remember, or he may have an absolute blank in his memory for certain periods.
Here we see all grades of the result of trying to forget, and the more successful the result the more difficult is the cure; for though the memories are repressed their associated emotions cannot be so dealt with, but remain in consciousness exaggerated and distorted. The dependence of an emotion upon a repressed memory prevents the sufferer from knowing its cause, and the sufferer from an apparently causeless emotion is to be pitied, for he can see no end to his trouble.
A man who was afraid of walking in the dark for fear of falling into holes which he knew only existed as a product of his fancy, affords a simple example of this condition. He said that his fear was absurd, therefore it was useless to point out to him its absurdity; the proper course was to show that it was not absurd, that it had a cause, and that the cause was something in the past which, when recognised, could be reasoned away. Fortunately the cause was easily found by any one with a knowledge of modern war: there was soon brought to light a ‘forgotten’ memory of his mates being drowned in shell-holes at night, and the fear disappeared as the patient learnt to look his memories in the face and not sink them into his unconscious.
More striking, however, are those cases in which a man forgets all his war experiences, and, though he is ready to believe that he has spent, say, two years in France, has no recollection of them. Such cases are not rare, the loss of memory often including part or all of the patient’s previous life. One man could only remember the last three months of his life and failed to recognise his own father, though his memory was subsequently restored; this loss, occurring suddenly, could hardly be in any degree voluntary, though it served the purpose of excluding many horrible memories from his consciousness. Another nervous lad was so constituted that he forgot all incidents that frightened him, only to be haunted by the emotions attached to them. Seeing a steeple-jack fall was forgotten, and produced nightmares for years; a practical joke gave him a terror of the dark; his sister calling to him when burglars were in the house gave him hallucinations of voices; and minor incidents were equally forgotten, each producing its own symptoms. As the individual memories were brought up from his unconscious he went through the fright again, but the associated symptoms soon disappeared.