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The Debate over Recovered Memories

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Updated May 06, 2006

A war continues to rage between advocates of "recovered memories" and advocates of "false memory syndrome." When the battle gets this heated it is difficult to determine where the truth lies. I believe that both sides have some points to make.

In 1997 a Texas jury awarded Lynn Carl $5.8 million based on her claim that treatment in the Dissociative Disorders Unit at Spring Shadows Glen Hospital produced false memories of satanic ritual abuse, and generally wrecked her life. I'm familiar with the treatment program at that facility because I once referred a patient there. I was expecting expert help in working with a very complex patient. What I got was quite different. The patient left the program in worse condition than when they entered; and it took years to un-do the "work" that was done at that facility. The hospital is now under new ownership.

Most people remember the bad things that happen to them, but sometimes extreme trauma is forgotten. Scientists are studying this, and we are beginning to understand how this occurs. When this forgetting becomes extreme a dissociative disorder sometimes develops. The International Society for the Study of Dissociation studies these disorders and their relationship to trauma.

Memory is not like a tape recorder. The brain processes information and stores it in different ways. Most of us have had some mildly traumatic experiences, and these experiences sometimes seem to be "burned-in" with a high degree of detail. Scientists are studying the relationship between two parts of the brain, the amygdala and the hippocampus to understand why this is. The following statements describe what we know at this time:

  • Moderate trauma can enhance long-term memory. This is the common-sense experience that most of us have, and it makes it difficult to understand how memory for horrible events can be forgotten.
  • Extreme trauma can disrupt long term storage and leave memories stored as emotions or sensations rather than as memories. Recent research suggests that it can take up to several days to fully store an event in long-term memory.
  • Sensory "triggers" in the present can cause forgotten material to surface. This is because the material is associated with the trigger through a process known as "state-dependent memory, learning, and behavior."
  • "False memories" of mildly traumatic events have been created in the laboratory. It is unclear to what extent this occurs in other settings.
  • Studies have documented that people who live through extreme trauma sometimes forget the trauma. The memory of the trauma can return later in life, usually beginning in the form of sensations or emotions, sometimes involving "flashbacks" where the person feels like they are re-living the memory. This material gradually becomes more integrated until it resembles other memories.

Are these recovered memories necessarily true? There is much debate about this. Some therapists who work with trauma survivors believe that the memories are true because they are accompanied by such extreme emotions. Other therapists have reported that some of their patients have recovered memories which could not have been true (a memory of being decapitated, for example).

Some groups have claimed that therapists are "implanting memories" in vulnerable patients by suggesting that they are victims of abuse when no abuse occurred. Some therapists do seem to have persuaded patients that their symptoms were due to abuse when they did not know this to be true. This was never considered good therapeutic practice, and most therapists are careful not to suggest a cause for a symptom unless the patient reports the cause.

There is some research suggesting that "false memories" for mild trauma can be created in the laboratory. In one study, suggestions were made that children had been lost in a shopping mall. Many of the children later came to believe that this was a real memory. It is not ethical to suggest memories of severe trauma in a laboratory setting.

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was founded to advocate for the position that many "recovered" memories of incest were actually "false" memories implanted by therapists. The society has yet to demonstrate that an actual "syndrome" exists, but they publish an excellent newsletter which contains details of recent court battles and legislation; as well as information about upcoming media events covering these issues. I recommend that all therapists working with this population subscribe to this newsletter. The newsletter is slanted toward the Foundation's point-of-view, but the information in it is valuable. Archived issues are also available.

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