Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University and an Op-Ed Project Public Voices Fellow
A former college student was recently sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing her newborn daughter and disposing her in a trash bag in April. In her defense, Emile Weaver said she was in denial about the pregnancy and thought the child was already dead when she put her in the bag.
Some people might look at the 21-year-old who committed this heinous act and see a person with an extreme sense of entitlement or a psychopath with a disregard for life—a convicted murderer. They might say that she’s the epitome of irresponsibility.
I’ll leave specific judgment to her courtroom. But it is worth exploring the possibility of the role of denial in instances like this.
Research shows there’s extensive debate regarding the reliability of people’s memories: how do we know that what people remember is real? And perhaps no aspect of cognitive development and functioning has been as rift with contention as the “forgetting” of traumatic events.
Numerous variables influence the accuracy of our memories: things like age, mood, situational context, sleep and intoxication, to name a few. In general, we’re less accurate in our remembering an event when we’re 5 than when we’re 12 than when we’re 20. But there’s also a lot that we don’t know.
For example, studies have shown that the accuracy of our memory—both what we encode and what we are able to retrieve from storage—can be colored by stress and the presence of psychiatric disorder. Yet research on the extent to which immediate perceived threat affects memory is much more mixed.
Freud proposed that unwanted experiences could be banished from our consciousness through a process called repression. Research has shown that we can suppress unwanted memories: if every time we encounter some reminder of the event, we reject and push it from awareness, its recall becomes harder and harder. In a review of the behavioral and neuro-imaging literature, Michael Anderson and Simon Hanslmayr document how repression actually occurs in the brain: through functional magnetic resonance imaging researchers actually identified the neural mechanisms of motivated forgetting.
In other words, we know people can suppress thoughts and memories. But determining how often and under what circumstances may take additional research to find out.
All humans engage, consciously or unconsciously, in minimizing or denying some aspects of their lives. For example, we may not fully recognize or acknowledge our spouse’s drinking or admit to ourselves that our kid isn’t the star athlete or student we’d hoped. This kind of coping strategy can be quite healthy and self-protective, allowing us to maintain some wishful thinking, compartmentalize stress and carry on in the face of problems of daily living.
Such massive and sustained breaks from reality, such as the one suggested in Weaver’s case, are more uncommon. But there is a possibility that they occur: by keeping certain knowledge out of conscious awareness, people can deny its existence.
These are the questions we should be asking: How can we help those we love deal with overwhelming events in their lives? And how can we reconcile the demands and/or limitations of our psyche with those of the weight of reality?