Is dissociative amnesia a culture-bound syndrome? Findings from a survey of historical literature

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Abstract

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.

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