The social construction of dissociative amnesia?

A recent article in the Washington Post discusses an interesting study by Harrison Pope, in which he and his collaborators attempt to test the thesis that dissociative (traumatically-induced) amnesia is a comparatively recent historical phenomenon that should not be grouped with ‘biologically-based’ psychiatric disorders such as dementia and schizophrenia.

Here is how they summarize their work, from the abstract of their article (Psychological Medicine, 37(2), pp. 225-233):

Background. Natural human psychological phenomena, such as depression, anxiety, delusions, hallucinations and dementia, are documented across the ages in both fictional and non-fictional works. We asked whether ‘dissociative amnesia’ was similarly documented throughout history. Method. We advertised in three languages on more than 30 Internet web sites and discussion groups, and also in print, offering US$1000 to the first individual who could find a case of dissociative amnesia for a traumatic event in any fictional or non-fictional work before 1800. Results. Our search generated more than 100 replies; it produced numerous examples of ordinary forgetfulness, infantile amnesia and biological amnesia throughout works in English, other European languages, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Sanskrit and Chinese before 1800, but no descriptions of individuals showing dissociative amnesia for a traumatic event. Conclusions. If dissociative amnesia for traumatic events were a natural psychological phenomenon, an innate capacity of the brain, then throughout the millennia before 1800, individuals would presumably have witnessed such cases and portrayed them in non-fictional works or in fictional characters. The absence of cases before 1800 cannot reasonably be explained by arguing that our ancestors understood or described psychological phenomena so differently as to make them unrecognizable to modern readers because spontaneous complete amnesia for a major traumatic event, in an otherwise lucid individual, is so graphic that it would be recognizable even through a dense veil of cultural interpretation. Therefore, it appears that dissociative amnesia is not a natural neuropsychological phenomenon, but instead a culture-bound syndrome, dating from the nineteenth century.

On their site,, they offer the Repression Challenge to anyone who can find examples meeting four standard criteria: 1) severe traumatic experience, followed by 2) amnesia for the traumatic event, 3) that is unexplainable by organic factors, and 4) is followed by recovery of memory of the event.

This study has obvious parallels with the work of Ian Hacking, who makes a similar proposal about fugue states and dissociative identity disorder/multiple personality disorder in his books Rewriting the Soul and Mad Travelers. There are a number of interesting questions such studies raise, both about the nature of psychological disorders and about how to confirm claims about their origins. Not having read this study yet, I can’t comment on its claims and methods in detail. But it’s good to see attempts to formulate empirical research programs that are inspired by philosophical claims about what we might call, with considerable trepidation, ‘social construction’.

One comment

  1. Nice post, Dan.

    It’s been a million years since I’ve read Rewriting the Soul and I’m otherwise totally ignorant of this literature. One thing I wonder is whether anyone makes the following distinction: brain-based illness with social causes/triggers vs. “illnesses” that are more like the social phenomena of clothing trends and dialects than actual organic breakdowns.

    It occurs to me that if something like MPD is a mere ‘social construction’ we need evidence that it falls on the second horn of my distinction.

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