What Is False Memory Syndrome?


Debate about “recovered memories” and “false memories” dominated media coverage of child abuse for much of the 1990s. Proponents of the “false memory” position argued that there was no evidence for traumatic amnesia, and that “recovered memories” of sexual abuse were unreliable, often the product of overly zealous therapists, and of hysterical, malicious or confabulating women. As noted above (`Recovered Memories and Traumatic Amnesia’) research into the nature of memory has become increasingly sophisticated since the 1990s.It affirms both the existence of traumatic amnesia and the potential legitimacy of `recovered memories’ (i.e, delayed onset memory recall)..Enhanced understanding of the complexity of memory (i.e. that it is not unitary but rather involves neural networks in which different types of memory are stored in different parts of the brain) has taken some of the heat out of the debates of the 1990s which occurred prior to availability of this more recent research.

To the extent that updated research into the nature of memory is not widely disseminated, there remains risk, however, that the polarised and over simplified perspectives of the 1990s continue to circulate. For this reason, it is important to revisit the nature of these debates through the lens of the increased knowledge about memory which is now available, lest the mistakes and misperceptions of the past continue to be reproduced.

In the last decade of the previous century, the concept of “False Memory Syndrome” (FMS) was created to explain delayed memories of sexual abuse which led to litigation. Parents accused of sexual abuse sought defence lawyers and psychological experts to help defend against these claims. While the definition of this syndrome was vague, it has been described by Kihlstrom (1997) as the outgrowth of “a condition in which a person’s identity and interpersonal relationships are centered around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes.”

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) also mounted a critique of so-called “Recovered Memory Therapy”. It claimed that recovered memory is likely to be false, and is generally the product of therapist suggestion. The vehicle by which this was held to occur was practice of “Recovered Memory Therapy”. There is no psychological therapy of this name; the term was invented by the Foundation in 1992 to describe any form of therapy in which a client might disclose memories of sexual abuse in childhood. Interestingly, a review of 30 former patients who sued their therapists for implanting false memories found that none of the cases involved therapy that could be characterised as “recovered memory therapy” e.g. a single-minded focus on recovering memories, or a client being misled in treatment (Scheflin and Brown,1999). Lindsay and Read (1994) found that “there is little reason to fear that a few suggestive questions will lead psychotherapy clients to conjure up vivid and compelling illusory memories of childhood sexual abuse”. A substantial proportion of people who recover memories do so without ever having participated in therapy at all.

Moreover, and contrary to claims that recovered memories are primarily the result of suggestive psychotherapy, most recovery of traumatic memories have been found to occur outside of therapy (Wlisnack et al, 2002). In their study less than 2% of women with delayed recall reported remembering the abuse with the help of a therapist or other professional person.

Current research on memory confirms that memory can be unreliable. Neither explicit (i.e. conscious, `autobiographical’, `declarative’) memory nor implicit (i.e. largely non-conscious, somatic, procedural) memory is infallible.

This means that the claim that recovered (implicit) memories are inherently less reliable than explicit, conscious memories is inaccurate:

`Memories that are recovered – those that were forgotten and subsequently recalled- can often be corroborated and are no more likely to be confabulated than are continuous memories’ 
(Chu, 2011, p.80 (citing ‘(Dalenberg, 1996; Kluft, 1995; Lewis, Yeager, Swiza, Pincus & Lewis, 1997); also Dalenberg et al, 2012).

In 2007 researchers, seeking external corroboration, concluded that abuse memories that are spontaneously recovered may indeed be as accurate as memories that have persisted since the time the incident took place (Geraerts et al., 2007).

Understanding of the nature of traumatic memory, how it differs from explicit, conscious memory recall, and the role of situational cues to the eliciting of memory (`triggers’) is also essential for informed discussion of the accuracy of memory recall While `false memories’ can and do occur, research upholds that this applies to explicit, conscious memory as well as to delayed onset recall (`recovered’) memories (Brand & McEwen, 2014). Also note that the validity of “False Memory Syndrome” has not been established. Whitfield (2001) and Brown (2001) provide a clear summary of the manner in which accused child abusers attempt to defend themselves in court using “false memory” arguments and other defences.


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