Disturbing memories caused by disturbed sleep?

Contributed by Lucy Rowe at Totton College.

Whether it’s possible for memories of a traumatic experience to be forgotten, only to be recovered years later remains controversial. One concern is that people who report experiencing fragments of buried memories of childhood sexual abuse are actually misinterpreting episodes of sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis occurs when a person wakes from dream sleep before their ability to move their body has kicked in again. Also, their dream can often overlap with their awakening perception of the ‘real’ world, leading to a sense of an intruder being in the room, for example, or the hearing of strange noises. Richard McNally and Susan Clancy from Harvard University investigated whether sleep paralysis is more prevalent among people who have reported recovered memories of having been abused, or among people who believe they’ve been abused but have no memories of it.

After advertising for participants in a newspaper, McNally and Clancy gave sleep paralysis questionnaires to 18 people (17 women) who believed they had been sexually abused but had no memories of it, 14 people (8 women) who had ‘recovered’ at least one memory of being abused, and 36 people (28 women) who reported being abused and never having forgotten the experience. Only 8 of these participants were able to provide an external source to corroborate their abuse claims. Sixteen people (11 women) who denied ever having been abused, served as a control.

Sleep paralysis was indeed more prevalent among the participants who reported having been abused (around 45 per cent experienced it) compared with the control group (only 13 per cent had). Although when asked to choose an explanation for their sleep paralysis, only one woman (from the recovered memory group) related it to child abuse.

Explaining their findings, the researchers said “Individuals who have unusual sleep-related experiences tend to score high on measures of absorption and dissociation, and people reporting sexual abuse histories also score high on these measures”.

McNally, J.R. & Clancy, S.A. (2005). Sleep paralysis in adults reporting repressed, recovered, or continuous memories of childhood sexual abuse. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 19, 595-602.