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Recovered-memory therapy

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Recovered-memory therapy (RMT) is a catch-all term for a controversial and scientifically discredited form of psychotherapy that critics say utilizes one or more unproven therapeutic techniques (such as some forms of psychoanalysis, hypnosis, journaling, past life regression, guided imagery, and the use of sodium amytal interviews) to purportedly help patients recall previously forgotten memories.[1][2] Proponents of recovered memory therapy claim, contrary to evidence,[3][4][5][6][7] that traumatic memories can be buried in the subconscious and thereby affect current behavior, and that these memories can be recovered through the use of RMT techniques. RMT is not recommended by professional mental health associations.[8] RMT can result in patients developing false memories of sexual abuse from their childhood and events such as alien abduction which had not actually occurred.[9]


A 2018 online survey found that although 5% of a U.S. public sample reported recovering memories of abuse during therapy (abuse they reported having no previous memory of), none of them used the terminology "recovered memory therapy"—instead those recovering memories reported using a variety of other therapy types (e.g., behavioral therapy, EMDR, etc.).[10] Practitioners of RMT generally utilize methods (such as hypnosis, age regression, guided visualization, and/or the use of substances such as sodium amytal) that are intended to recover true memories, yet known to support the creation of false memories.[11][12][13]


A review article on potentially harmful therapies listed RMT as a treatment that will probably produce harm in some who receive it.[14] Richard Ofshe, an American sociologist and expert on coerced and suggested testimony, describes the practice of "recovering" memories as fraudulent and dangerous.[11] An inquiry by the Australian government into the practice found little support for or use of memory recovery therapies among health professionals, and warned that professionals had to be trained to avoid the creation of false memories.[15] As part of its Crime Victims Compensation Program the state of Washington issued a report on the efficacy of RMT. It noted that the therapy had no positive benefits in the case studies analyzed and that "the ability of repressed memory patients to function in the activities of daily living is significantly and possibly irrevocably impaired as a direct result of the controversial therapy modalities.” Moreover, it recognized the potential for legal action from participants due to negative effects sustained from the program.[16]

Studies by Elizabeth Loftus and others have concluded that it is possible to produce false memories of childhood incidents.[17] The experiments involved manipulating subjects into believing that they had some fictitious experience in childhood, such as being lost in a shopping mall at age 6. This involved using a suggestive technique called "familial informant false narrative procedure," in which the experimenter claims the validity of the false event is supported by a family member of the subject. The study has been used to support the theory that false memories of traumatic sexual abuse can be implanted in a patient by therapists. Critics of these studies argue that the techniques do not resemble any approved or mainstream treatment modality,[18] and there are criticisms that the implanted events used are not emotionally comparable to sexual abuse.[19][20] Critics contend that Loftus's conclusions overreach the evidence.[19][18] Loftus has rebutted these criticisms.[21]

Some patients later retract memories they had previously believed to be recovered through RMT [22] upon encountering critical literature regarding recovered memory therapy. This literature often highlights the therapy's dangerous and pseudoscientific aspects, thereby exposing them to scientific facts that prompt reconsideration.[23][24] Patients have reported significant harmful effects due to the use of RMT.[25]

A 2018 US study is the largest study known that surveys the general public about memory recovery in therapy. The study was presented to participants aged 50 years or older as a "Life Experience" survey and found that 8% of the 2,326 adults had reported seeing therapists, mostly starting in the 1990s, that discussed the possibility of repressed memories of abuse. 4% of adults had reported recovering memories of abuse in therapy for which they had no previous memory. Recovered memories of abuse were associated with most therapy types.[26] A 1994 survey of 1000 therapists by Michael D. Yapko found that 19% of the therapists knew of a case in which a client's memory had been suggested by therapy but was in fact false.[27]

Professional guidelines[edit]

There are several individuals and groups that have published guidelines, criticisms or cautions about recovered memory therapy and techniques to stimulate recall:

  • In the Brandon Report, a set of training, practice, research and professional development recommendations, the United Kingdom's Royal College of Psychiatrists advised psychiatrists to avoid use of RMT or any "memory recovery techniques", citing a lack of evidence to support the accuracy of memories recovered in this way.[28]
  • In 2004, the government of the Health Council of the Netherlands issued a report in response to inquiries from professionals regarding RMT and memories of traumatic child sexual abuse.[29] The Health Council stated that while traumatic childhood experiences were major risk factors for psychological problems in adulthood, the fact that most traumatic memories are well-remembered but can be forgotten or become inaccessible though the influence of specific circumstances precludes a simple description of the relationship between memory and trauma. The report also notes that memories can be confabulated, re-interpreted and even apparently vivid or dramatic memories can be false, a risk that is increased when therapists use suggestive techniques, attempt to link symptoms to past trauma, with certain patients and through the use of methods to stimulate memories.[29]
  • The Australian Hypnotherapists Association (AHA) issued a similar statement, for contexts where false memories of child sexual abuse may arise. The AHA acknowledges that child sexual abuse is serious, damaging and at least some memories are genuine, while cautioning that some questioning techniques and interventions may lead to illusory memories leading to false beliefs about abuse.[30]
  • The Canadian Psychological Association has issued guidelines for psychologists addressing recovered memories.[31] Psychologists are urged to be aware of their limitations in knowledge and training regarding memory, trauma and development and "that there is no constellation of symptoms which is diagnostic of child sexual abuse". The guidelines also urge caution and awareness of the benefits and limitations of "relaxation, hypnosis, guided imagery, free associations, inner child exercises, age regression, body memory interpretation, body massage, dream interpretation, and the use of projective techniques" and special caution regarding any legal involvement of memories, abuse and therapy.

Legal issues[edit]

In Ramona v. Isabella, Gary Ramona sued his daughter's therapist for implanting false memories of his abuse of her. In the first case putting recovered memory therapy, itself, on trial, he eventually was awarded $500,000 in 1994.[32]

Discussing RMT in the New South Wales Parliament in 1995, the state Minister for Health, Andrew Refshauge – a medical practitioner – stated that the general issue of admissibility of evidence based on recovered memories was one for the Attorney General.[33] In 2004 Australian Counselling Association issued a draft position statement regarding recovered memories in which it informed its membership of possible legal difficulties if they affirm accusations as true based solely upon discussion of a patient's recovered memories, without adequate corroborating evidence.[34]

A degree of controversy does remain within legal circles, with some holding the view that therapists and courts should consider repressed memories the same as they consider regular memories. Three relevant studies state that repressed memories are "no more and no less accurate than continuous memories."[35][36]

Recovered memory therapy was an issue in the criminal trials of some Catholic priests accused of fondling or sexually assaulting juvenile-turned-adult parishioners.[37][38]

In a 2017 criminal case in Canada, a Nova Scotian clergyman, the Reverend Brent Hawkes, was acquitted in a case involving recovered memories of alleged historical sexual abuse when Justice Alan Tufts described in his ruling that the complainant's method of re-constructing his memory of alleged events after joining a men's group and hearing similar accounts from other "survivors" his evidence could not be reliable.[39]

Several court cases awarded multimillion-dollar verdicts against Minnesota psychiatrist Diane Bay Humenansky, who used hypnosis and other suggestive techniques associated with RMT, resulting in accusations by several patients against family members that were later found to be false.[40][41][42]

In 1999, the Netherlands Board of Prosecutors General formed The National Expert Group on Special Sexual Matters, in Dutch - Landelijke Expertisegroep Bijzondere Zedenzaken (LEBZ). LEBZ consists of a multidisciplinary group of experts whom investigating police officers and prosecutors are mandated to consult before considering arresting or prosecuting a person accused of sexual crimes involving repressed memories or recovered memory therapy. The LEBZ released a report for the period of 2003–2007 stating that 90% of the cases they consulted on were stopped due to their recommendations that the allegations were not based on reliable evidence.[43]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lief, Harold I (November 1999). "Patients Versus Therapists: Legal Actions Over Recovered Memory Therapy". Psychiatric Times. XVI (11).
  2. ^ Kihlstrom, John F. (1996). "The Trauma-Memory Argument and Recovered Memory Therapy". In Pezdek, Kathy; Banks, William P. (eds.). The Recovered Memory/False Memory Debate. San Diego: Academic Press Inc. pp. 298–299. ISBN 0125529759.
  3. ^ McNally, R.J. (2004). "The Science and Folklore of Traumatic Amnesia". Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. 11 (1): 29–33. doi:10.1093/clipsy/bph056.
  4. ^ McNally RJ (2007). "Dispelling confusion about traumatic dissociative amnesia". Mayo Clin. Proc. 82 (9): 1083–90. doi:10.4065/82.9.1083. PMID 17803876.
  5. ^ McNally RJ (2004). "Is traumatic amnesia nothing but psychiatric folklore?". Cogn Behav Ther. 33 (2): 97–101, discussion 102–4, 109–11. doi:10.1080/16506070410021683. PMID 15279316. S2CID 22884436.
  6. ^ McNally RJ (2005). "Debunking myths about trauma and memory". Can J Psychiatry. 50 (13): 817–22. doi:10.1177/070674370505001302. PMID 16483114. S2CID 9069287.
  7. ^ McNally, RJ (September 2007). "Dispelling confusion about traumatic dissociative amnesia". Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 82 (9): 1083–90. doi:10.4065/82.9.1083. PMID 17803876.
  8. ^ Whitfield, CL; Silberg JL; Fink PJ (2001). Misinformation Concerning Child Sexual Abuse and Adult Survivors. Haworth Press. pp. 55–56. ISBN 978-0-7890-1901-1.
  9. ^ McNally, Richard J. (2005). Remembering Trauma. Harvard University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv1pdrpxm. ISBN 978-0-674-01082-6.
  10. ^ Patihis, Lawrence; Pendergrast, Mark (2018). "Reports of Recovered Memories of Abuse in Therapy in a Large Age-Representative U.S. National Sample: Therapy Type and Decade Comparisons". Clinical Psychological Science. 7: 3–21. doi:10.1177/2167702618773315. S2CID 150267043.
  11. ^ a b Ofshe, Richard; Ethan Watters (1994). Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria. Charles Scribner's. ISBN 978-0-684-19698-5.
  12. ^ Lambert, Kelly; Lilienfeld, Scott (2007). "Brain Stains Traumatic therapies can have long-lasting effects on mental health". Scientific American Mind. Archived from the original on 2007-10-25. Retrieved 24 March 2021.
  13. ^ Greene, Edith; Wrightsman, Lawrence S.; Nietzel, Michael T.; Fortune, William H. (2002). Psychology and the legal system. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning. ISBN 978-0-534-36544-8.
  14. ^ Lilienfeld, SO (2007). "Psychological Treatments That Cause Harm". Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2 (1): 53–70. CiteSeerX doi:10.1111/j.1745-6916.2007.00029.x. PMID 26151919. S2CID 26512757. [dead link]
  15. ^ Australian Health Services Commissioner (2005). "Inquiry into the practice of recovered memory therapy" (PDF). Office of the Health Services Commissioner. pp. 78–82. Retrieved 2008-01-31.
  16. ^ Parr, Loni (1996), Washington Department of Labor and Industries (PDF), Olympia, Washington: Washington Department of Labor and Industries, retrieved 2024-03-10
  17. ^ Loftus, E; Davis D (2006). "Recovered Memories" (PDF). Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. 2: 469–98. doi:10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.2.022305.095315. PMID 17716079. Retrieved 2008-05-16.
  18. ^ a b Pope, Kenneth S. (1998). "Pseudoscience, Cross-Examination, and Scientific Evidence in the Recovered Memory Controversy". Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. 4 (4): 1160–1181. doi:10.1037/1076-8971.4.4.1160. Retrieved 7 September 2022.
  19. ^ a b Williams LM (December 1994). "Recall of childhood trauma: a prospective study of women's memories of child sexual abuse". J Consult Clin Psychol. 62 (6): 1167–76. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.62.6.1167. PMID 7860814.
  20. ^ Rogers, Richard (2008). Clinical Assessment of Malingering and Deception, Third Edition. New York: The Guilford Press. ISBN 978-1-59385-699-1.
  21. ^ Loftus, E (1999). "Lost in the mall: Misrepresentations and misunderstandings" (PDF). Ethics & Behavior. 9 (1): 51–60. doi:10.1207/s15327019eb0901_4. PMID 11657488. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-06-19.
  22. ^ Lynn, Steven Jay; Stafford, Jane; Malinoski, Peter; Pintar, Judith (12 January 1997). "Memory in the Hall of Mirrors: The Experience of "Retractors" in Psychotherapy". Psychological Inquiry. 8 (4): 307–312. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0804_6. ISSN 1047-840X.
  23. ^ Ost, James (2017-08-09). "Adults' retractions of childhood sexual abuse allegations: high-stakes and the (in)validation of recollection". Memory. 25 (7): 900–909. doi:10.1080/09658211.2016.1187757. ISSN 0965-8211.
  24. ^ Li, Chunlin; Otgaar, Henry; Daele, Tessa van; Muris, Peter; Houben, Sanne T. L.; Bull, Ray (2023-07-24). "Investigating the Memory Reports of Retractors Regarding Abuse". The European Journal of Psychology Applied to Legal Context. 15 (2): 63–71. doi:10.5093/ejpalc2023a7. ISSN 1889-1861.
  25. ^ Nelson, Eric; Simpson (1994). "First Glimpse: An Initial Examination of Subjects Who Have Rejected their Recovered Visualizations as False Memories". Issues In Child Abuse Accusations. 6 (3): 123–133.
  26. ^ Patihis and Pendergrast (May 2018). "Reports of Recovered Memories of Abuse in Therapy in a Large Age-Representative U.S. National Sample: Therapy Type and Decade Comparisons". Researchgate.
  27. ^ Waterhouse, Rosie (May 31, 1994). "Therapists accused of misleading patients". The Independent. Retrieved 2015-12-28.
  28. ^ Brandon, S.; Boakes, J.; Glaser, D.; Green, R.; MacKeith, J.; Whewell, P. (1997). "Reported recovered memories of child sexual abuse: Recommendations for good practice and implications for training, continuing professional development and research". Psychiatric Bulletin. 21 (10): 663–665. doi:10.1192/pb.21.10.663.
  29. ^ a b "Executive summary" (PDF). Omstreden herinneringen [Disputed memories]. The Health Council of the Netherlands: The Hague: Health Council of the Netherlands. 2004-01-27. ISBN 978-90-5549-512-2. publication no. 2004/02.
  30. ^ "Australian Hypnotherapists Association Code of Ethics: Guidelines for AHA Members working with clients in contexts in which issues related to false memories of childhood sexual abuse may arise" (PDF). Australian Hypnotherapists Association. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2005-10-25. Retrieved 2008-05-16.
  31. ^ Ogloff, JRP (1996). Guidelines for psychologists addressing recovered memories (PDF). Canadian Psychological Association. ISBN 978-1-896538-38-9. Retrieved 2008-05-16.
  32. ^ Jeffrey A. Mullins (1996). "Has Time Rewritten Every Line?: Recovered-Memory Therapy and the Potential Expansion of Psychotherapist Liability". Washington and Lee Law Review. 53 (2): 763–802. Retrieved 2011-10-21.
  33. ^ "Legislative Assembly, 22 November 1995, Full Day Hansard Transcript, Hansard". Parliament of NSW. 1995-11-22. Retrieved 2010-12-14.
  34. ^ ACA Newsletter Spring 2004 Draft position statement on RMT page 109 Archived July 21, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  35. ^ Alan Scheflin (November 1999). "Ground Lost: The False Memory/Recovered Memory Therapy Debate". Psychiatric Times. 16 (11). Retrieved 2010-12-14.
  36. ^ Richard A. Leo (1997). "The Social and Legal Construction of Repressed Memory". Law & Social Inquiry. 22 (3): 653–693. doi:10.1111/j.1747-4469.1997.tb01084.x. JSTOR 828814. S2CID 143302700.
  37. ^ Martin Gardner (January 2006). "The Memory Wars, Part 1". Skeptical Inquirer. 30 (1). Archived from the original on December 15, 2007.
  38. ^ Martin Gardner (March 2006). "The Memory Wars, Parts 2 and 3". Skeptical Inquirer. 30 (2). Archived from the original on December 24, 2007.
  39. ^ "R. v. Hawkes, 2017 NSPC 4 (CanLII)". CanLII. 2017-01-31.
  40. ^ Gustafson, Paul. Jury awards patient $2.6 million: Verdict finds therapist Humenansky liable in repressed memory trial. Minneapolis St. Paul Tribune, August 1, 1995.
  41. ^ Pam Belluck (November 6, 1997). "Memory Therapy Leads to a Lawsuit and Big Settlement". The New York Times. Retrieved December 26, 2007.
  42. ^ Guthrey, M. and Kaplan, T., 2nd Patient Wins Against Psychiatrist: Accusation of planting memories brings multi-million dollar verdict. St. Paul Pioneer Press, Jan. 25, 1996, 4B.
  43. ^ Nierop & van den Eshof (November 2008). "[Translated from Dutch] Abuse, Deception and Misunderstandings: investigation report of the National Expert Group on Special Sexual Matters for the period 2003–2007" (PDF). zedenadvocaat.

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