Backstory: Not So Total Recall

Early in Showtime's lovable-serial-killer series Dexter, the show's titular psycho discovers a pool of blood and suddenly recalls the decades' buried memory of his mother's brutal slaying, the long-invisible engine of his murderous compulsions. Without the show's high camp style, its audience might fail to empathize with a murderer or forgive his loved ones' ignoring the giant bag of knives in the trunk. But no such assistance is required for most of us to accept the extraordinary mental mechanics at Dexter Morgan's core. Westerners take it for granted that a memory of severe trauma can be repressed for years, invisibly shaping one's neuroses, until resurfacing either on its own or with the help of a therapist.

But while this notion has taken root in the cultural consciousness, it's far from settled in the scientific community. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that the brain would instead attempt to preserve memories of trauma so as to avoid its causes in the future. Neurological evidence and testimony from victims of trauma support this conclusion. When we undergo trauma, the brain produces neurotransmitters associated with memory formation in abundance, and a majority of trauma victims report an inability to forget. A 2007 Harvard study revealed new evidence that there exists no inborn neurological mechanism for repressing memories. Offering a cash reward online for anyone who could produce a clear example from world history or literature pre-1800 of an event that fit the clinical description of memory repression/recovery, the team has yet to receive a response that fits the bill. Thus, they conclude: if memory repression is happening to people at all, it's the result of cultural suggestion, not an innate property of the human brain.

Yet, evidence to the contrary is equally abundant. Evolutionarily, child abuse may be a special case, since it may behoove a young person materially dependent upon its abuser to ignore or forget the abuse. Furthermore the inability to recall much of anything from our earliest years is recognized as a neurological fact, though when in life the brain begins "recording" is a subject of debate. Thus, it seems possible that traumas occurring near the end of this period could be misplaced, imperfectly recorded somewhere in the brain. Additionally, some of the neurotransmitters secreted during trauma can, in high doses, corrode neural connections rather than strengthen them. Finally, parties who support the existence of memory repression cite the many cases in which hard evidence of long-buried abuse has corroborated the claims of victims who have apparently recovered long-repressed memories.

The debate may seem moot. Perhaps our brains evolved the ability to wipe traumatic memories so as to reap what benefits we can from abusive caregivers. Or, as members of a society shaped by centuries of religion and philosophy and steeped in the Freudian conception of a mind split between the conscious and the unconscious, we have drunk deeply the suggestion that we can hide from our nightmares. Whatever the reality, it's clear that a search for certainty about our past and how it's shaped us is likely to raise more questions than it answers. Nothing could be truer for the characters you're about to meet in Amy Herzog's The Great God Pan.

–Alec Strum, Associate Literary Manager