April 17, 2008, Updated September 13, 2012

Did Freud get it wrong? Prof. Yacov Rofé of Bar-Ilan University thinks he could have.The whole structure of psychoanalysis may rest on Sigmund Freud’s concept of ‘repression,’ the burying of traumatic memories by the unconscious mind, but an Israeli professor has found no empirical evidence to support its existence.

In a paper published in the American Psychological Association’s Review of General Psychology, Prof. Yacov Rofé, head of Bar-Ilan University’s Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences, states that it is time to “bury” the idea of Freudian repression, both as a cause, and a factor in the treatment of psychiatric disorders.

“I examined the evidence to see whether Freud is right when he says distortion of reality is undesirable, and found that the opposite is the case,” says Rofé.

“While repression of emotions may have deleterious effects on one’s physical health, repression – as defined by Freud – was originally developed to account for the development of mental disorders, and not of physical illnesses.

“Not only has the literature shown no causal link between repression and psychological illness, it has shown that repression – the ‘distortion’ of reality in which we put aside traumatic memories in order to focus on the positive – usually has a positive effect on psychological functioning.”

In classical psychoanalysis, repression is regarded as a negative phenomenon, which is thought to be a direct cause of mental illness, and to affect an individual’s psychological and physiological functioning for the worse.

Rofé found, however, that according to psychological literature, repression – and the adoption of a “distorted” view of reality – can actually be a key factor in the maintenance of mental health.

Rofé came to his conclusions after undertaking the first comprehensive study of a century’s worth of scientific literature related to the theory of repression and mental illness.

“One would think that after such an extended discussion of the theory of repression by the psychoanalytic community, as well as clinicians and experts from other disciplines, there would be some solid evidence to support Freud’s theory of repression,” says Rofé. “Instead, I found none whatsoever.”

The significance of Rofé’s conclusions are widespread. Far from being a matter of historical debate, the issue of repression is still a hot potato in modern psychological research.

There are implications for the American legal system, which is involved in a debate over whether alleged perpetrators can be convicted relying on recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse.

“There have been cases of people who have been accused in courts of law on the basis of repressed memory,” says Rofé.

“There is a serious controversy today on whether such evidence can be used for conviction, as many believe that recovered memories are valid. However, there is some evidence indicating that psychodynamic therapists may encourage the production of false memories. This is strengthened by many experimental studies demonstrating the production of false memories,” he continues.

By revealing the fundamental lack of scientific evidence for Freud’s core tenet of repression, and by calling into question other key Freudian concepts, the Bar-Ilan University study shakes long-held assumptions about the overall legitimacy of Freudian psychoanalytic theory.

“We may need a new theory of psychopathology – perhaps a new concept of repression – that can provide insight into the underlying causes of psychiatric disorders,” concludes Rofé.


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