Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Abuse and Memory

by Stormchild

There often seems to be a strikingly short "collective memory" among people in general when issues of ongoing abuse are being discussed, especially when emerging patterns of abuse are first identified.

It's frustrating, because it thwarts learning and enables destructive patterns to play out over and over - people genuinely don't seem to recognize them, and when they're pointed out, the pointer-outer is often faulted and shamed for seeing what's there and putting the pieces together.

This is a common experience for people who "blow the whistle" on abuse in their workplaces, especially, and for people who "out" abusive situations in their FOOs [Families Of Origin]. It's also not uncommon when someone begins to realize that a friend or loved one may have an issue with alcohol or substance abuse... nobody else remembers all the things that have happened, nobody else connects the dots, and the person who does is castigated for seeing clearly, and left wondering what on earth is going on.

Upon exploring this, I've found researchers convinced that there is a direct connection between abuse - especially if it involves betrayal - and the suppression of memory. 

Here are some excerpts from an article, linked below. 
"Recent studies have shown that victims of childhood abuse and combat veterans actually experience physical changes to the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in learning and memory, as well as in the handling of stress.  The hippocampus also works closely with the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that regulates our  emotional response to fear and stress. PTSD sufferers often have impairments in one or both of these brain regions. Studies of children have found that these impairments can lead to problems with learning and academic achievement. 

Other typical symptoms of PTSD in children, including fragmentation of memory, intrusive memories, flashbacks,  dissociation (or the unconscious separation of some mental processes from the  others, e.g., a mismatch between facial expression and thought or mood), and  pathological ("sick") emotions, may also be related to impairment of the hippocampus. Damage to the hippocampus, which processes memory, may explain why victims of childhood abuse often seem to have incomplete or delayed recall of their abusive experiences.

Memory problems play a large part in PTSD. PTSD patients report deficits in declarative memory (remembering  facts or lists -- see below), fragmentation of memory and dissociative amnesia (gaps in memory lasting from minutes to days that are not caused by ordinary forgetting)." ~from The Doctor Will See You Now. 
And additional information from this linked site Leadership Council :
"Research has shown that traumatized individuals respond by using a variety of psychological mechanisms. One of the most common means of dealing with the pain is to try and push it out of awareness. Some label the phenomenon of the process whereby the mind avoids conscious acknowledgment of traumatic experiences as dissociative amnesia.  Others use terms such as repression, dissociative state, traumatic amnesia, psychogenic shock, or motivated forgetting.  Semantics aside, there is near-universal scientific acceptance of the fact that the mind is capable of avoiding conscious recall of traumatic experiences."
Jennifer Freyd, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon and a cognitive psychologist, wrote a book about this in 1996: "Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse."  Her premise is that, while the fear associated with abuse can be and often is clearly remembered, abuse involving betrayal is often suppressed from memory - especially if the target of the "betrayal abuse" is dependent on the abuser for survival. Her focus is primarily on childhood abuse, but it's not only children who may depend on an abuser to survive. This is also true of battered spouses, people with mental or physical handicaps who must rely on a caregiver, and the elderly.

This tendency to forget abuse involving betrayal - through a mechanism stronger even than denial - would be something that abusers would certainly exploit and promote, since it works to their advantage to keep their target, or victim, in an unaware state. It also allows them to feel contempt for their target, since the target "keeps coming back for more" and "never learns". (And contempt is a very important part of abuse - in my opinion, it is one of the primary "payoffs" for the abuser.)

In a family or group setting such as a workplace, this forgetting, or inability to retain episodes of abuse in memory, also can affect bystanders and witnesses - especially since the bystanders, like the target of abuse, usually depend on the abuser for their survival, whether economic (as in an abusive workplace) or literal (as in the children of a battered spouse). The result of this collective "forgetting" is that the target is even more isolated, and the potential for scapegoating them if they ever break through their own denial and confront group members regarding the abuse becomes even greater.

Dr. Freyd describes this "amnesia for abuse" as "the distortion of information for the purpose of preserving a relationship". At the Leadership Council link above, you can pick up a .pdf copy of her article "Memory and Dimensions of Trauma: Terror May be 'All-Too-Well Remembered' and Betrayal Buried".

This information has all kinds of implications - for instance, it explains a great deal about how workplace bullies "get away with it" beyond the simple fact of their being feared. If a workplace is generally abusive, people may be heavily invested in forgetting the free-floating abuse they encounter there every day. They will also be less likely to support a co-worker who is experiencing direct, focused abuse. In such environments, the scapegoat serves a vital purpose: they draw the abuser's fire, and others are spared. Few people, unfortunately, have sufficient moral courage to intervene in a situation that allows them to subsist at someone else's expense, when the most likely result of such intervention is that they too will become a target. That, however, is a topic for another time.

So: the next time an unpleasant or frustrating situation feels oddly familiar to you ... consider that it might be even more familiar than you realize.

Originally published on Gale Warnings, November 26, 2006
Republished with permission

1 comment:

  1. Quote: "So: the next time an unpleasant or frustrating situation feels oddly familiar to you ... consider that it might be even more familiar than you realize."

    Wonderful and resourceful article! I love your ending quote!