False memory syndrome

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False memory syndrome (FMS) describes a condition in which a person's identity and relationships are affected by memories that are factually incorrect but that they strongly believe.[1] Peter J. Freyd originated the term,[2] which the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) subsequently popularized. The term is not recognized as a psychiatric illness[3] in any of the medical manuals, such as the ICD-10[4] or the DSM-5;[5] however, the principle that memories can be altered by outside influences is overwhelmingly accepted by scientists.[6][7][8][9]

False memories may be the result of recovered memory therapy, a term also defined by the FMSF in the early 1990s,[10] 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.[11]

The FMS concept is controversial,[12][13] 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.[2]

Recovered memory therapy[edit]

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.[14] The term is not listed in DSM-IV or used by any mainstream formal psychotherapy modality.[10]

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".[citation needed] In 1998, the Royal College of Psychiatrists Working Group on Reported Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse wrote:[15]

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.[16] An Australian psychologist was de-registered for engaging in them.[17]

Evidence for false memories[edit]

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.[18] 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.[19] 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.[20]

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.[21] 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.[22]

Experimental researchers have demonstrated that memory cells in the hippocampus of mice can be modified to artificially create false memories.[23][24]

Court cases[edit]

Sexual abuse cases[edit]

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).[25][26][27] The research of Elizabeth Loftus has been used to counter claims of recovered memory in court[21] 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.[21][28][29]

Supporters of recovered memories believe that there is "overwhelming evidence that the mind is capable of repressing traumatic memories of child sexual abuse."[30] 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."[31] 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.[32]

Malpractice cases[edit]

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.[33]

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.[34] There is debate regarding the total number of retractions as compared to the total number of allegations,[35] and the reasons for retractions.[36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ McHugh, PR (2008). Try to remember: Psychiatry's clash over meaning, memory and mind. Dana Press. pp. 66–67. ISBN 1-932594-39-6.
  2. ^ a b McHugh 2008, p. 55.
  3. ^ Rix, Rebecca (2000). Sexual abuse litigation: a practical resource for attorneys, clinicians, and advocates. Routledge. p. 33. ISBN 0-7890-1174-3.
  4. ^ "icd 10 codes: psychiatry". Priory Lodge Education Ltd. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
  5. ^ American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. ISBN 978-0-89042-555-8.
  6. ^ Paterson, H. M., Kemp, R. I., & Forgas, J. P. (2010). "Co-witnesses, confederates, and conformity: The effects of discussion and delay on eyewitness memory.," Psychiatry, Psychology and Law.
  7. ^ Loftus, Elizabeth F. Memory: Surprising New Insights Into How We Remember and Why We Forget (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1980).
  8. ^ Schacter, Daniel L. The Seven Sins of Memory : How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001).
  9. ^ Association for Psychological Science (2008, August 20). "False Memories Affect Behavior."
  10. ^ a b Whitfield, Charles L.; Joyanna L. Silberg; Paul Jay Fink (2001). Misinformation Concerning Child Sexual Abuse and Adult Survivors. Haworth Press. p. 56. ISBN 0-7890-1901-9.
  11. ^ McHugh 2008, pp. 67–68.
  12. ^ Dallam, S. (2002). "Crisis or Creation: A systematic examination of false memory claims". Journal of Child Sexual Abuse. 9 (3/4): 9–36. doi:10.1300/J070v09n03_02. PMID 17521989. Retrieved 2008-06-27.
  13. ^ Dalenberg, C (2006). "Recovered memory and the Daubert criteria: recovered memory as professionally tested, peer reviewed, and accepted in the relevant scientific community". Trauma Violence Abuse. 7 (4): 274–310. doi:10.1177/1524838006294572. PMID 17065548.
  14. ^ McHugh 2008, p. 63.
  15. ^ Brandon S, Boakes J, Glaser D & Green R (1998). "Recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse: implications for clinical practice". British Journal of Psychiatry. 172 (4): 296–307. doi:10.1192/bjp.172.4.296. PMID 9722329.
  16. ^ "Malpractice Suit Against Dr. Bennett Braun". Fortea.us. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
  17. ^ "Health Care Complaints Commission v. Tynan". Austlii.edu.au. 10 February 2010. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
  18. ^ Schacter, DL (2002). The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 123–30. ISBN 0-618-21919-6.
  19. ^ Roediger, Henry L.; Kathleen B. McDermott (July 1995). "Creating False Memories: Remembering Words Not Presented in Lists". Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 4. 21 (4): 803–14. doi:10.1037/0278-7393.21.4.803.
  20. ^ "Starship memories". Harvard Gazette. October 31, 2002. Retrieved 2014-02-23.
  21. ^ a b c Wilson, A (2002-11-03). "War & remembrance: Controversy is a constant for memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus, newly installed at UCI". The Orange County Register. Retrieved 2009-01-19.
  22. ^ Strange, D; Clifasefi S; Garry M (2007). "False memories.". In Garry M & Hayne H. Do Justice and Let the Sky Fall: Elizabeth F. Loftus and Her Contributions to Science, Law, and Academic Freedom. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 137–68. ISBN 0805852328.
  23. ^ Ramirez, S., et al., (2013). Creating a False Memory in the Hippocampus Science 26 July 2013: Vol. 341 no. 6144 pp. 387–91 doi:10.1126/science.1239073
  24. ^ Jha, Alok (25 July 2013). "False memory planted in mouse's brain". The Guardian.
  25. ^ "Are Recovered Memories Reliable?". Religioustolerance.org. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
  26. ^ Colleen Born. "Elizabeth Loftus". Muskingum.edu. Archived from the original on 2011-01-08. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
  27. ^ "The Recovered Memory Project". Brown.edu. 1993-05-03. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
  28. ^ Neimark, J. (1996). The diva of disclosure, memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus. Psychology Today, 29, 48–53, 80.
  29. ^ Saletan, William (2010-06-04). "The memory doctor: the future of false memories". Slate. Retrieved 2012-05-08.
  30. ^ Murphy, W. "Debunking 'false memory'myths in sexual abuse cases". Archived from the original on 2008-01-07. Retrieved 2008-01-10.
  31. ^ Whitfield, C. (March 2002). "The "False Memory" Defense Using Disinformation and Junk Science In and Out of Court". Journal of Child Sexual Abuse. 9 (3/4): 53–78. doi:10.1300/J070v09n03_04. Retrieved 2008-01-11.
  32. ^ Brown, D. (2001). "(Mis)representation of the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse in the Courts". Journal of Child Sexual Abuse. 9 (3/4): 79–107. doi:10.1300/J070v09n03_05. PMID 17521992. Retrieved 2008-01-28.
  33. ^ "Recovered Memory Lawsuit Sparks Litigation". Psychiatrictimes.com. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
  34. ^ Macdonald, Gail (1999). "Women Against Women". Making of an Illness: My Experience With Multiple Personality Disorder. Sudbury, Ontario: Laurentian University Press. p. 111. ISBN 0-88667-045-4. Retrieved 31 July 2013.
  35. ^ Whitfield M.D., Charles L. (1995). Memory and Abuse – Remembering and Healing the Effects of Trauma. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc. p. 83. ISBN 1-55874-320-0.
  36. ^ Summit, R. (1983). "The child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome". Child Abuse & Neglect. 7 (2): 177–93. doi:10.1016/0145-2134(83)90070-4. PMID 6605796.

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