Opinion | What we all need to know about memory

TRAUMA INSIGHT: A new research paper has debunked common myths around memory that have had repercussions for Australia’s systems of justice and care.
TRAUMA INSIGHT: A new research paper has debunked common myths around memory that have had repercussions for Australia’s systems of justice and care.

Why do we sometimes struggle to remember? If you’re not sure, you're not alone. There’s been a lack of understanding about memory for a long time – and it’s had dire consequences. That’s because many victims of abuse only recover memories of their trauma years later, and when they do they’re often not believed, or taken seriously – in the justice or health system, or with family and friends. That can stop them getting justice or the right treatment, causing untold harm.

No trauma victim should suffer due to lack of understanding. Now we have the tools to help ensure they don’t. Blue Knot Foundation has produced a paper – believed to be a world first – which looks at the latest research on memory and trauma.

Launching this week at the TheMHS Summer Forum, the paper: The Truth of Memory and the Memory of Truth – Different Types of Memory and the Significance of Trauma, provides an invaluable guide. It aims to build our collective understanding of memory – particularly in the justice and health systems – to ensure all trauma victims are understood, supported and receive the justice they deserve.

The paper helps us to understand how memory works. Moreover, it debunks common myths about memory, particularly around trauma, many of which have been costly and had far-reaching repercussions – for our systems of justice and care, trauma victims and society as a whole.

Contrary to what many people think, there’s not one type of memory. In fact, there are two main types. An important type of memory is “implicit” memory. It is mainly unconscious and can’t be put into words. It’s the type of memory that helps us ride a bike or drive a car, without actively thinking about it. Or the memory of how we felt during an experience. It’s often experienced in the body, and triggered by something, such as a smell, sight or sound, or on an important date. The other main type of memory, “explicit” memory is what people normally think of when they think about memory. It is conscious. We know about it and we can talk about it. It’s the memory we engage when we recount a story, or when we relay knowledge and facts. Many people think explicit memory is the only type of memory, or that it is more important. That’s simply not correct.

One of the biggest myths the paper debunks is that people can’t forget traumatic events, and remember them later. This is not true. Traumatic memory is implicit memory – it cannot be recalled at will and put into words. A person who ‘remembers’ a traumatic memory will often experience it in their body or as a behaviour or action, from the past. Such a memory is triggered out of the blue, appearing as fragments of intense emotions, sensations, movements and behaviours. Memories that are forgotten for a period and then remembered, also known as recovered memories, have often been questioned as to their reliability. And trauma victims have suffered as a result.

The paper presents research that finally shows both recovered memory and always remembered memory are equally reliable. It provides vital information for legal and health professionals, as well as the general public. It can help therapists to understand their clients’ struggles, and it can help lawyers, jurors and judges when they interview, cross-examine and make judgements. Most importantly, it can help ensure trauma victims receive the support, justice and compassion they deserve. 

Dr Cathy Kezelman AM, is President of Blue Knot Foundation and co-author of the research paper.