Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A false memory is a memory of an event that did not happen or is a distortion of an event that did occur as determined by externally corroborated facts. If a person remembers an event that lacks another witness or corroborative physical evidence, the validity of the memory may be questioned—but not dismissed. It might be said that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but validation has the highest priority. For instance, one might say that there are scores of secret elephants with wings; as difficult as it may be to disprove such a statement outright, the statement cannot be validated until many such elephants are actually found.
Complications arise when a memory involves trauma inflicted by another. If it is in a reputedly involved third party's interest to deny an incriminating memory, the memory cannot be dismissed merely on the strength of such a denial. Likewise, the memory alone does not warrant an accusation of the third party—hence the need for external corroborative evidence.
The origin of false memories is controversial. Hypnosis can be used to form false memories because this technique can lead to fantasizing and can increase the subjective certainty of fantasy. Research suggests that at least some false memories are formed through rehearsal, or repetition, of an event that has been confirmed as fantastic: after repeatedly thinking about and visualizing an event, a person may begin to “remember” it as if it had actually occurred. Upon questioning, such a person might confidently recall the event when in fact it is merely previous visualizations that make it seem familiar. Rehearsal is the strongest mechanism of moving short-term memory into long-term memory. Naturally, the rehearsal of incorrect information leads to the formation of an incorrect long-term memory. This applies to both implanted and real memories. For example, many people have had experienced the phenomenon of learning that a childhood memory actually happened to a sibling.
Many proponents of recovered memories emphasize the importance of distinguishing between ordinary and traumatic memory. Studies show that memories can be implanted, but we lack studies on implanted traumatic memories and their related affects—such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Dissociative Identity Disorder—because such studies would be unethical.
False-memory syndrome (FMS) is the term for the hypothesis describing a state of mind wherein sufferers have a high number of highly vivid but false memories, often of abusive events during their childhood. This condition has been studied, and sufferers have confessed to “entirely made up stories.” However, the DSM-IV does not recognize FMS, although the forgetting of traumatic events constitutes several of the manual's diagnostic criteria for PTSD. The debate over FMS centers largely around the topic of child abuse, wherein alleged victims are said to experience dissociation, which causes repression of the traumatic memory until later in life, when the memory resurfaces either naturally or with the aid of a professional. Many advocates of FMS argue against both methods of memory recovery, claiming that such professionals as therapists and psychiatrists accidentally implant false memories.
The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) was formed by a group of parents who had been accused of child abuse, their lawyers, and sympathetic academics who promote the hypothesis of FMS and dispute the validity of recovered memories. One member of the FMSF is memory expert Elizabeth Loftus. The FMSF cooperates with the anti-pseudoscience organizations CSICOP and The Skeptics Society, who regard recovered memories as a typical but especially dangerous pseudoscience.
False memory has figured prominently in many investigations and court cases, including cases of alleged sexual abuse and Satanic ritual abuse. Other reputed instances of therapist-implanted false memory involve alien abductions and reincarnation therapy, which use methods that FMS advocates describe as capable of inducing false memories.
Some FMS advocates claim that recovered memory therapists use methods reminiscent of cults, saying that such therapists:
- Keep information from their clients that could place their recovered memories in doubt
- Viciously attack opponents, insinuating that they are practitioners of Satanic ritual abuse or that they endorse the sexual abuse of children
The 1980s saw a wave of child abuse accusations based on recovered memories, resulting in the imprisonment of some accused parents. Some of these convictions were reversed in the 1990s, and there are cases in which recovered-memory therapists have been successfully sued by former clients for implanting false memories.
Critics of recovered memory therapy, like Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters (Making Monsters. False Memories, Psychotherapy, And Sexual Hysteria), view the practice of "recovering" memories as fraudulent and dangerous. They base this assertion on several claims:
- Traumatic experiences which obviously have happened, such as war time experiences, are not "repressed"—they are either forgotten or remembered clearly in spite of attempts to suppress them.
- The "memories" recovered in RMT are highly detailed. According to RMT literature, the human brain stores very vivid memories which can be recalled in detail, like a video tape. This belief contradicts virtually all research on the way memories work.
- The patient is given very extensive lists of "symptoms" including sleeplessness, headaches, the feeling of being different from others etc. If several of these symptoms are found, the therapist suggests to the patient that they were probably sexually abused. If the patient denies this, they are "in denial" and require more extensive therapy.
- During the questioning, patients are openly encouraged to ignore their own feelings and memories and to assume that the abuse has happened. They then explore together with this therapist, over a prolonged period of many months or even years, how the abuse happened. The possibility that the abuse has not happened at all is usually not considered.
According to these critics, RMT techniques used for "reincarnation therapy " or "alien abduction therapy " are comparable to the techniques used in Satanic ritual abuse therapy. To verify the false memory hypothesis, researchers like Elizabeth Loftus have successfully produced false memories of various childhood incidents in test subjects. This is viewed as further evidence that comprehensive false memories can be produced in therapy.
- Ceci, S.J., Huffman, M.L.C., Smith, E., & Loftus, E.F. (1994) Repeatedly thinking about non-events. Consciousness and Cognition, 3, 388-407.
- Hyman, I.E., Husband, T.H., & Billings, F.J. (1995) False memories of childhood experiences. Applied Cognitive Psychology 9, 181-197.
- Roediger, H.L. & McDermott, K.B. (1995). Creating false memories: Remembering words that were not presented in lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 21, 803-814. Full Text (PDF).
- Pendergrast, Mark Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives, Upper Access,Inc, 1995
- Ofshe, Richard and Watters, Ethan Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994
External links and references
- Whitfield, Charles L. (1995) Memory and abuse: remembering and healing the effects of trauma.
- Skeptic's Dictionary on false memories
- False Memory Syndrome Foundation
- Demonstration of a "false memory" test at Northwestern (uses Macromedia Flash, requires audio)
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