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Book Forum: Child/Adolescent Psychiatry   |    
The Fate of Early Memories: Developmental Science and the Retention of Childhood Experiences
RICHARD M. WAUGAMAN, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:1072-a-1073. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.6.1072-a
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By Mark L. Howe. Washington, D.C., American Psychological Association, 2000, 218 pp., $24.95.

When mothers repeatedly read aloud a given story passage during the last trimester of their pregnancy, their newborn babies demonstrate recognition of that specific story passage during the first 33 hours after birth. Howe uses this well-documented research to show that long-term memory is operational even before birth. Howe goes on to provide a scholarly review of the broad topic of children’s memory to assess the accuracy and durability of early childhood memories. The author, Professor of Psychology at Lakehead University, has done extensive research on this topic, and he reviews the work of other researchers in this field. His list of references runs to 36 pages. He offers subtle critiques of some of the studies that he reviews, calling for improved methodology that can clarify possible confounding variables, when numerous aspects of memory may be intertwined in what is being measured—i.e., initial storage, retention, revision over time, and, finally, later recall. He offers a plausible thesis that autobiographical memory can develop only once the 18–24-month-old child has attained a cognitive sense of the self who has experienced the events of the child’s life. Readers who are looking for a review of ordinary childhood memory will find this book useful and illuminating. Howe persuasively describes the reality of memory revision and distortion (readers who doubt these phenomena need only think of their spouse’s faulty memory for some of their shared experiences!).

The book has a further agenda: to forge a sort of Howe-itzer to fire salvos in the so-called memory wars concerning traumatic memories (1). Howe, who has served as an expert witness concerning memory in lawsuits, doubts that traumatic events could be recorded in memory, then repressed, and still later be recalled with substantial accuracy. As Lein (2) has noted, however, "Karon and Widener (1997) [3] found it ‘astounding that so many authoritative statements…refer to repression and repressed memories as myth’ when, in World War II, there were hundreds of documented cases of recovered traumatic combat experiences, usually with eyewitness observers of the event" (2, p. 483).

Howe does not examine the issue of traumatic memories in an unbiased way. He states in his introduction,

It is this belief that early experiences can exert such a powerful influence over people’s lives, and that these so-called formative events can be remembered, that served as the impetus for writing this book…there is a need to counteract these beliefs about early memories of experiences with the empirical facts. (p. xii).

Howe does not accept the currently widely held theory that memory includes several rather distinct systems, such as explicit memories and implicit memories (the latter are especially relevant to repressed or dissociated traumatic memories). He repeatedly cites the principle of parsimony, demanding one-sidedly that those who differ with him on this issue produce "incontrovertible evidence" for their position (p. 15), although the evidence he offers for his own views is considerably short of incontrovertible. To his credit, he calls for empirical investigations that might falsify his own "theoretical speculations" on memory (p. 149). But he then ignores much of the literature that, in my opinion, does just that (e.g., reference 4). He fails to mention a book that is perhaps the single most important contribution to the topic of traumatic memories. The winner of APA’s 1998 Guttmacher Award, Memory, Trauma, Treatment, and the Law by Brown et al. (5), clearly demonstrates that traumatic events can be forgotten, then later remembered (e.g., pp. 390–394).

Also surprisingly, Howe downplays the neuroanatomy of memory (his references omit the work of LeDoux [reference 6, for example]). This is an exciting area of research that will offer a great deal to our conceptual models of memory, including emotionally charged memories of traumatic events. Howe does acknowledge that "both positive and negative experiences can have long-lasting neurobiological effects that, although not necessarily remembered declaratively, certainly must be considered a memory inasmuch as future behaviors are altered by these earlier experiences" (p. 70). He then asserts, however, that any progress in linking memory with neurobiology "in no way diminishes the theories advanced in this book" (p. 142). Howe also entirely omits the topic of dreams, despite the abundant evidence that dreams are crucially linked with memory processing (e.g., reference 7). He shortchanges the robust findings of attachment research, which offer intriguing evidence of the enduring consequences of the child’s early experiences with caretakers (see issues 4 and 5 of the journal Psychoanalytic Inquiry in 1999, edited by D. Diamond and S.J. Blatt).

Howe’s exploration of ordinary memory allows him to draw many plausible conclusions about its operation. His speculations about traumatic memory, however, are deeply flawed. Howe studied the memories of children who had emergency room treatment for accidents and posits that such research can "serve as analogs to ‘real-life’ abuse traumas" (p. 64). He does not adequately acknowledge the vastly different nature of memories of children who experience repeated physical, emotional, or sexual abuse by a parent or other primary caretaker. He erroneously concludes that children who have been abused will retain whatever memories for the abuse that they recorded in the first place— that the "gist of the event" will be preserved in readily accessible memory (p. 79). He even maintains that lack of memory of an experience of abuse, or of the birth of a sibling, could simply mean that these events "may not have been important at all" for the child, rather than reflect the child’s use of repression (p. 129).

Howe’s lack of attention to clinical data severely limits the relevance of his book. Clinical experience, for example, highlights the contrast between the neurotic defense mechanism of repression and the use of dissociation in the face of overwhelming psychological trauma. Howe seems to be unaware of the clinical observation that autobiographical memory may not include instances of severe trauma perpetrated by an abuser whom the child trusts, because the child resorts to dissociation to create a wishful fantasy that the trauma occurred to someone else, in an attempt to preserve the core sense of self from unbearable psychic pain. Neither "repression" nor "dissociation" appears in the book’s index. Howe does not distinguish between the preconscious mind and the dynamic unconscious mind. He draws sweeping conclusions about severely traumatic memories that are not supported by his data, and he says nothing about the impact on a child’s memory of abuse when the abuser threatens to harm the child if she or he ever discloses the abuse to anyone, although this is precisely the sort of condition that increases the likelihood that a child will dissociate traumatic memories.

Loewenstein (8) has reviewed the evidence that severe and repeated childhood trauma is likely to result in amnesia in explicit memory, whereas implicit memory records the events, which can lead to accurate behavioral reenactments of the trauma. Many of the articles that Loewenstein cites in support of this position are not mentioned by Howe.

Howe’s book is a useful compendium of research on nontraumatic childhood memory, but as a weapon in the memory wars, it is shooting blanks.

Michels R: book rev, K Pezdek, WP Banks (eds): The Recovered Memory/False Memory Debate. Am J Psychiatry  1997; 154:1465
 
Lein J: Recovered memories: context and controversy. Social Work  1999; 44:481-484
[CrossRef]
 
Karon BP, Widener AJ: Repressed memories and World War II: lest we forget! Prof Psychol Res Pr  1997; 28:338-340
[CrossRef]
 
Spiegel D (ed): Repressed Memories. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Press, 1997
 
Brown D, Scheflin AW, Hammond DC: Memory, Trauma, Treatment, and the Law. New York, WW Norton, 1998
 
LeDoux J: The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996
 
Palombo S: Dreaming and Memory: A New Information-Processing Model. New York, Basic Books, 1978
 
Loewenstein RJ: Dissociative amnesias and dissociative fugue, in Handbook of Dissociation: Theoretical, Empirical, and Clinical Perspectives. Edited by Michelson LK, Ray WJ. New York, Plenum, 1996, pp 307-336
 
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References

Michels R: book rev, K Pezdek, WP Banks (eds): The Recovered Memory/False Memory Debate. Am J Psychiatry  1997; 154:1465
 
Lein J: Recovered memories: context and controversy. Social Work  1999; 44:481-484
[CrossRef]
 
Karon BP, Widener AJ: Repressed memories and World War II: lest we forget! Prof Psychol Res Pr  1997; 28:338-340
[CrossRef]
 
Spiegel D (ed): Repressed Memories. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Press, 1997
 
Brown D, Scheflin AW, Hammond DC: Memory, Trauma, Treatment, and the Law. New York, WW Norton, 1998
 
LeDoux J: The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996
 
Palombo S: Dreaming and Memory: A New Information-Processing Model. New York, Basic Books, 1978
 
Loewenstein RJ: Dissociative amnesias and dissociative fugue, in Handbook of Dissociation: Theoretical, Empirical, and Clinical Perspectives. Edited by Michelson LK, Ray WJ. New York, Plenum, 1996, pp 307-336
 
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