Lifting of Amnesia

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The lifting of amnesia involves the return of forgotten memories, and results especially from psychotherapy with hysterics. The notion of the lifting of amnesia, more phenomenological than metapsychological, led to the thought of the lifting of repression. However, it should not be reduced to this. Lifting of amnesia negates a negation, since amnesia abolishes remembrance; lifting it allows the conscious ego to return to normal function, which had been diminished by the amnesia.

This notion surfaced in the first of Freud's works on the theory of neuroses (1894-1896), as well as those on amnesia and mnemic trace written in the same period.

The term lifting of amnesia is parallel to "lifting of inhibition" and "lifting of repression." Freud often utilizes the expression of the lifting of the "veil" of amnesia, representing amnesia as something that hides what should have been conscious, a screen that prevents it from being perceived. The semantic and lexicographical field is close to that of the memory-screen (Deckerrinerung, "memory-covering" of the "memory cover," Gedeckte Erinnerung, buried in the amnesia). The images of veil and cover, as well as that of "lifting," emphasized the visual-perception dimension of memory and, for the early Freud, gave concrete expression to repression, which was rediscovered after the amnesia had been lifted.

Abreaction of post-traumatic affect allows the lifting of amnesia, by "bringing clearly to light the memory of the event by which it was provoked" (1893a, p. 6). At stake here is not simply the power of recollection, but especially by "arousing its accompanying affect" (p. 6), there can be a liberating release, through symbolization. In effect, the abreaction supposes that we give the affect linked to trauma a "verbal expression" that binds it. The conception of abreaction foreshadows, in certain respects, later developments on working-through and construction in psychoanalysis.

Lifting of amnesia causes the resurgence of memories charged with affects; retroactively meaning is given to a traumatic situation, which the subject, overwhelmed and overcome by events, could not grasp at the time. Until the moment of resurfacing, "these experiences are completely absent from the patients' memory when they are in a normal psychical state, or are only present in a highly summary form. . . . [T]hese memories [then] emerge with the undiminished vividness of a recent event" (p. 9). From this point of view, the unconscious would consist of an alteration of normal memorywhence Freud's paradoxical evocation of unconscious memory (for example in 1896 in the "Aetiology of Hysteria" [1896c, p. 212]: "hysterical symptoms are derivatives of memories which are operating unconsciously").

The persistent pressure of lived experience (Erlebnis ) seeks to lift the veil of amnesia; the strength of the impression (Eindruck ) in itself inclines toward lifting of amnesia. The mnemic trace of either an external event resonating in the psyche of the subject, or of a purely internal psychic event, seeks repeatedly an outlet toward the perception/consciousness system. Failing to find one, it appears in dreams, screen memories, daydreams, and symptoms. An impulse to memory (Impuls zur Erinnerung ) exists, directed toward the hallucinatory mode of satisfaction and the identification of representation with perception, sometimes to be found in what Freud called a "mnemic image": a sensory intensity, essentially visual, of the memory of sexual trauma, at the moment of the lifting of amnesia.

With amnesia we don't remember, but with the lifting of amnesia, we remember "too much" in a sense. Lifting the amnesia confirms the correctness of the psychoanalytic interpretation, but Freud was to distinguish later between the lifting of amnesia and lifting of repression, the latter accompanied by a transformation of the economy, dynamics, and topic of the ego, and obtained more through the analysis of repetition and transference than by recollection.

Indeed, Freud discovered, in his clinical practice as an analyst, that recollection never totally lifts amnesia, in particular infantile amnesia. In 1914, in "Remembering, Repeating, and Working-through" (1914g), he said that the analysis of repetition-compulsion is the best instrument to reconstitute that part of the psychic reality that remains amnesiac: repetition is a "way of remembering" (1914g, p. 150). When "the patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out," (p. 151), then "the transference is itself only a piece of repetition" (p. 151).

Freud here abandoned a conception of the cure based on the lifting of amnesia and the abreaction of traumatic memories, in favor of the lifting of repression, that is to say the transformation of the psychic organization of the analysand. We should, consequently, treat the neurosis "not as an event of the past, but as a present-day force" (p. 151).

In 1937, in "Constructions in Analysis" (1937d), he expanded the notion of interpretation to include that of construction, proposing to the analysand a hypothetical point of view on his history and on the cause of his symptoms based on an analysis of repetitive behavior, the transference, but also of clues that have been saved from oblivion, which are the "fragments of these memories in dreams" (p. 258). The analysand's conviction that the construction is correct has the same effect of lifting the symptom and as a full and entire recollection. Freud remained partially attached to his earlier conception of the treatment when he added that the communication to the analysand of a construction can provoke the resurgence of "lively recollections called up in themwhich they themselves have described as 'ultra-clear"' (p. 266): the lifting of amnesia as a proof of the correctness of the construction.

Lifting amnesia has a specific function in the consciousness that a subject can have of their special history and of their identity. In hysteria, the "breakthrough into consciousness" (1985c [1887-1904], p. 239) is expressed especially through memory, whereas in other pathologies it may be expressed otherwise, through action or delirium, as Freud had already written to Wilhelm Fliess, on May 2, 1897.

Beyond its essentially phenomenological dimension, the notion of the lifting of amnesia leaned too heavily on a clinical conception that stressed the abreaction of trauma by remembering; Freud distanced himself from this early conception in favor of a concept based on interpretation and construction, aimed at working-through, symbolization, and transformation. Apart from the fact that the project of a total lifting of amnesia is unrealizable because new secondary repressions are still in place, the existence of an original repression would condemn such a project as illusion.

Also, in certain cases of serious trauma (Ferenczi, 1932), there is no lifting of amnesia possible. Mnemic traces exist only in the mode of scattered corporal sensations or of divided affects, which are very difficult of access. In these cases, the abreaction has to be made by means of the emergence of intense affects, which were not felt at the time of the trauma, and not by the lifting of amnesia. The analyst therefore listens for the traumatic resonance of words rather than seeking the resurgence of memories.

FranÇois Richard

See also: Amnesia.


Ferenczi, Sándor. (1932). Le traumatisme psychique. In Notes et fragments, O.C., Psychanalyse (Vol. 4, pp. 82-97).

Freud, Sigmund (1896a). Heredity and the aetiology of neuroses. SE, 3: 141-156.

. (1896c). The aetiology of hysteria. SE, 3: 186-221.

. (1914g). Remembering, repeating and working-through (further recommendations on the technique of psycho-analysis). SE, 12: 145-156.

. (1937d). Constructions in analysis. SE, 23: 255-269.

. (1985c [1887-1904]). The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904 (pp. 238-240). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1893a). On the psychical mechanism of hysterical phenomena: Preliminary communication. SE, 2: 1-13.