False memory syndrome
In psychology, false memory syndrome (FMS) describes a condition in which a person's identity and relationships are affected by false memories, recollections that are factually incorrect but yet are strongly believed. Peter J. Freyd originated the term, which his False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) subsequently popularized. The principle that individuals can hold false memories and the role that outside influence can play in their formation is widely accepted by scientists. However FMS is not recognized as a psychiatric illness in any medical manuals including the ICD-10 or the DSM-5.
False memory syndrome may be the result of recovered memory therapy, a term also defined by the FMSF in the early 1990s, which describes a range of therapy methods that are prone to creating confabulations. Some of the influential figures in the genesis of the theory are forensic psychologist Ralph Underwager, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, and sociologist Richard Ofshe.
False memory syndrome is a condition in which a person's identity and interpersonal relationships center on a memory of a traumatic experience that is objectively false but that the person strongly believes occurred.
The FMS concept is controversial, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not include it. Paul R. McHugh, member of the FMSF, stated that the term was not adopted into the fourth version of the manual due to the pertinent committee being headed by believers in recovered memory.
Recovered memory therapy
Recovered memory therapy is used to describe the therapeutic processes and methods that are believed to create false memories and false memory syndrome. These methods include hypnosis, sedatives and probing questions where the therapist believes repressed memories of traumatic events are the cause of their client's problems. The term is not listed in DSM-IV or used by any mainstream formal psychotherapy modality.
Memory consolidation becomes a critical element of false memory and recovered memory syndromes. Once stored in the hippocampus, the memory may last for years or even for life, regardless that the memorized event never actually took place. Obsession to a particular false memory, planted memory, or indoctrinated memory can shape a person's actions or even result in delusional disorder.
Mainstream psychiatric and psychological professional associations now harbor strong skepticism towards the notion of recovered memories of trauma. The American Psychiatric Association and American Medical Association condemn practices fitting the description of "Recovered Memory Therapy".[medical citation needed] In 1998, the Royal College of Psychiatrists Working Group on Reported Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse wrote:
No evidence exists for the repression and recovery of verified, severely traumatic events, and their role in symptom formation has yet to be proved. There is also striking absence in the literature of well-corroborated cases of such repressed memories recovered through psychotherapy. Given the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse, even if only a small proportion are repressed and only some of them are subsequently recovered, there should be a significant number of corroborated cases. In fact there are none.
That such techniques have been used in the past is undeniable. Their continued use is cause for malpractice litigation worldwide. An Australian psychologist was de-registered for engaging in them.
Psychiatric controversy concerning recovered memories
In psychiatry, confabulation is a memory error defined as the production of fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive. Psychotherapists tried to reveal “repressed memories” in mental therapy patients through “hypnosis, guided imagery, dream interpretation and narco-analysis” in the 1980s. The reasoning was that if abuse couldn't be remembered, then it needed to be recovered by the therapist. This type of therapy became popular in the 1990s. Many victims don't remember their abuse, making the underlying phenomenon of trauma-induced amnesia nonetheless legitimate.
Therapists who subscribe to recovered memory theory point to a wide variety of common problems, ranging from eating disorders to sleeplessness, as evidence of repressed memories of sexual abuse. The legal phenomena developed in the 1980s, with civil suits alleging child sexual abuse on the basis of “memories” recovered during psychotherapy. The term “repressed memory therapy” gained momentum and with it social stigma surrounded those accused of abuse. The “therapy” led to other psychological disorders in persons whose memories were recovered.
Evidence for false memories
Human memory is created and highly suggestible, and can create a wide variety of innocuous, embarrassing, and frightening memories through different techniques—including guided imagery, hypnosis, and suggestion by others. Though not all individuals exposed to these techniques develop memories, experiments suggest a significant number of people do, and will actively defend the existence of the events, even if told they were false and deliberately implanted. Questions about the possibility of false memories created an explosion of interest in suggestibility of human memory and resulted in an enormous increase in the knowledge about how memories are encoded, stored and recalled, producing pioneering experiments such as the lost in the mall technique. In Roediger and McDermott's (1995) experiment, subjects were presented with a list of related items (such as candy, sugar, honey) to study. When asked to recall the list, participants were just as, if not more, likely to recall semantically related words (such as sweet) than items that were actually studied, thus creating false memories. This experiment, though widely replicated, remains controversial due to debate considering that people may store semantically related items from a word list conceptually rather than as language, which could account for errors in recollection of words without the creation of false memories. Susan Clancy discovered that people claiming to have been victims of alien abductions are more likely to recall semantically related words than a control group in such an experiment.
The lost in the mall technique is a research method designed to implant a false memory of being lost in a shopping mall as a child to test whether discussing a false event could produce a "memory" of an event that did not happen. In her initial study, Elizabeth Loftus found that 25% of subjects came to develop a "memory" for the event which had never actually taken place. Extensions and variations of the lost in the mall technique found that an average of one third of experimental subjects could become convinced that they experienced things in childhood that had never really occurred—even highly traumatic, and impossible events.
How memory works in the brain
The cerebrum, or forebrain, makes up the largest part of the brain, and it is covered by a sheet of neural tissue known as the cerebral cortex, which envelops the part of our brain where memories are stored. Glutamate and GABA (two amino acids), act as the yin and yang of the brain, steering emotions by determining whether nerve cells are excited or inhibited (calm). Under normal conditions the system is balanced. But when individuals get hyper-aroused and vigilant, glutamate surges. Glutamate is also the primary chemical that helps to make it easy to remember memories stored in the brain. "Procedural memory, the unconscious memory of skills, for example, knowing how to ride a bike, is dependent upon repetition and practice and will operate automatically like muscle memory. Declarative memory, 'knowing what,' is memory of facts, experiences and events."
How traumatic memories hide in the brain
Memories of traumatic experiences hide deep in the brain, causing psychiatric problems. The memory of early childhood abuse can be forgotten and remembered with more or less accuracy. "It's difficult for therapists to help these patients," Jelena Radulovic, the Dunbar Professor in Bipolar Disease at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine said, "because the patients themselves can't remember their traumatic experiences that are the root cause of their symptoms." A special mechanism of the brain has been discovered to store stress related memories. If the brain registers an overwhelming trauma, then it can essentially block that memory in a process called dissociation or detachment from reality. "The brain will attempt to protect itself". The same way the body can wall-off an abscess or foreign substance to protect the rest of the body, the brain can dissociate from an experience. In the midst of trauma, the brain may wander off and work to avoid the memory.
Sexual abuse cases
The question of the accuracy and dependability of a repressed memory that someone has later recalled has contributed to some investigations and court cases, including cases of alleged sexual abuse or child sexual abuse (CSA). The research of Elizabeth Loftus has been used to counter claims of recovered memory in court and it has resulted in stricter requirements for the use of recovered memories being used in trials, as well as a greater requirement for corroborating evidence. In addition, some U.S. states no longer allow prosecution based on recovered memory testimony. Insurance companies have become reluctant to insure therapists against malpractice suits relating to recovered memories.
Supporters of recovered memories believe that there is "overwhelming evidence that the mind is capable of repressing traumatic memories of child sexual abuse." Whitfield states that the "false memory" defense is "seemingly sophisticated, but mostly contrived and often erroneous." He states that this defense has been created by "accused, convicted and self-confessed child molesters and their advocates" to try to "negate their abusive, criminal behavior." Brown states that when pro-false memory expert witnesses and attorneys state there is no causal connection between CSA and adult psychopathology, that CSA doesn't cause specific trauma-related problems like borderline and dissociative identity disorder, that other variables than CSA can explain the variance of adult psychopathology and that the long-term effects of CSA are non-specific and general, that this testimony is inaccurate and has the potential of misleading juries.
During the late 1990s, there were multiple lawsuits in the United States in which psychiatrists and psychologists were successfully sued, or settled out of court, on the charge of propagating iatrogenic memories of childhood sexual abuse, incest, and satanic ritual abuse.
Some of these suits were brought by individuals who later declare that their recovered memories of incest or satanic ritual abuse had been false. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation uses the term retractors to describe these individuals, and have shared their stories publicly. There is debate regarding the total number of retractions as compared to the total number of allegations, and the reasons for retractions.
Injuries resulting from malpractice
Sexual abuse of children and adolescents leads to severe negative consequences. Child sexual abuse is a risk factor for many classes of psychiatric disorders, including anxiety disorders, affective disorders, dissociative disorders and personality disorders. Failure to meet recognized medical standards by psychiatrists causes injury to patients and the accused. Ramona v. Isabella was a prominent case of malpractice in 1994. A California Jury awarded $500,000 to Gary Ramona, whose daughter Holly had falsely accused him of sexual abuse as a child, based on false memories retrieved by therapists during treatment for bulimia. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Burton Bach dismissed Holly Ramona's civil case against her father, holding that the outcome of her father's malpractice suit had resolved the issue of whether any abuse took place. The Washington Post titled the article Sex Abuse Suit Dismissed in False-Memory Case on December 14, 1994. There were numerous cases brought to trial in the 1990s. Most included combinations of the misuse of hypnosis, guided imagery, sodium amytal, and anti-depressants.
The term "false memory syndrome" describes the phenomenon in which a mental therapy patient “remembers” an event such as childhood sexual abuse, that never occurred. The link between certain therapy practices and the development of psychological disorders such as multiple personality disorder and dissociative identity disorder comes from malpractice suits and state licensure actions against therapists. These cases demonstrate the ease with which an individual can be led to exhibit dissociative symptoms, especially when hypnosis, sodium amytal, strong medications, or readings involving traumatic imagery magnify the effect of therapist suggestions or expectations.[medical citation needed] These cases also show that once the symptoms become established, the standard treatment modality often leads to a deterioration of the mental and emotional well being of the patient.[medical citation needed]
Skepticism of the theory
False Memory Syndrome has been described as a widespread social phenomenon where misguided therapists cause patients to invent memories of sexual abuse (McCarty & Hough, 1992). The syndrome was described and named by the families and professionals who comprise the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (see Freyd, March 1993, p. 4), an organization formed by parents claiming to be falsely accused of child sexual abuse.
Since its establishment in 1992, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation has received 14,000 reports of sexual abuse accusations based on recovered memories.
Proponents of the syndrome claim that it is occurring at epidemic levels, and some have gone so far as to characterize it as the mental health crisis of the 1990s (e.g., Gardner, 1993, p. 370). Critics, on the other hand, have suggested that the syndrome is based on vague, unsubstantiated generalizations, which do not hold up to scientific scrutiny (e.g., Page, 1999), and that the syndrome's primary purpose is to discredit victims' testimony (e.g., Murphy, 1997). This article critically examines the assumptions underlying the concept to determine whether there is sufficient empirical evidence to support "False Memory Syndrome" as a valid diagnostic construct. Epidemiological evidence is then examined to determine whether there is data to support claims of either a public health crisis or epidemic.
Experts have described recovered memory theory as "either the most fascinating psychological discovery of the 20th century or the centerpiece of the most embarrassing mistake modern psychiatry and psychotherapy have ever made." Recovered memory theorists believe that individuals repress memories of traumatic events deep in the psyche.[medical citation needed]
The American Psychiatric Association (1993) in a statement on the issue of false memories, stated that repression did occur, but was unable to provide convincing references. On examination of a list of 31 references none adequately demonstrated that it took place. Meanwhile, studies in cognitive psychology have shown very clearly that memory is highly malleable and is a reconstructive process, not to be compared with the replaying of a disc or the review of an engraving or a videotape. The hypothesis that memory – so subject to attrition with time and so liable to revision by motive – can be recovered in a pristine form or even in a 50% accurate state after years of neglect, inattention or suppression becomes untenable.
In popular culture
False Memory Syndrome has become so widely known that television shows and movies have been made about the phenomenon, such as the Netflix series The Sinner, which touches on the idea of recovering forgotten memories. The show focuses on a woman who kills a seemingly random man on the beach one day for playing a song that triggered a traumatic event from her past, which she has temporarily forgotten. Throughout the first season detectives try to trigger her memory and find a motive for her actions.
- Alien abduction
- False allegation of child sexual abuse
- McMartin preschool trial
- Memory bias
- Memory conformity
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- False memory syndrome at Curlie
- Memory controversies at Curlie
- Memory Wars is a website with information from all sides of the issue. Primary resources include an extensive bibliography / abstract database and pre-print archive. Also available are sections for criminal investigation, criminal defense and many other useful resources.
- False Memory Syndrome, Child & Woman Abuse Studies Unit of London Metropolitan University. Argues that "false memories" are real memories.
- False Memory Syndrome Foundation
- The false memory archive
- The false memory archive: did that really happen?