The timing, triggers and qualities of recovered memories in therapy


Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey TW20 0EX, UK (e-mail:


Objectives. To report descriptive data on memory recovery of traumatic material including: degree of prior amnesia, triggers to recovery, qualities of the memory and length of time taken to recover different types of memory.

Design. British Psychological Society practitioners who reported having clients with recovered memories in a previous large-scale survey were contacted for an indepth interview. They each provided information on up to three such clients.

Methods. From telephone interviews with 108 therapists, we elicited 236 detailed accounts of clients recovering a traumatic memory. Interviews were semistructured with investigator-based ratings.

Results. The degree of amnesia varied widely according to therapists: some clients had prior total amnesia, others a prior vague sense or suspicion, and others prior partial memories. Time in therapy before first recall was longer for memories involving child sexual abuse than for memories of other traumas. The majority of the memories, but not all, were similar to those reported by patients with post-traumatic stress disorder: they were fragmented, accompanied by high levels of emotion, and experienced as a reliving of the original event.

Conclusions. On the basis of current understanding of memory processes, several mechanisms may be needed to explain all the data, including disruptions to the encoding and retrieval of traumatic events and errors in the attribution of the source of specific memories. It will be important to confirm these findings by interviewing clients themselves.