False Memory Syndrome

Basic Facts Regarding the False Memory Controversy

False memory syndrome (FMS) is a term invented by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) to describe the situation in which adults who remember instances of abuse from their childhood are mistaken regarding their memory's accuracy. In other words, the foundation is saying that recovered or repressed memories of child abuse survivors can be inaccurate. Not only that, some false memory advocates claim that therapists sometimes "implant" memories of abuse in patients which are not real, yet patients come to believe them as if they were true. This is obviously a hotly contested topic, so what follows are some basic facts.


The Origins of the False Memory Syndrome Controversy

  • In December 1990, after her second therapy session, Jennifer Freyd allegedly recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. Her therapist routinely asked her if she had ever been sexually abused, but that subject was not pursued in that session.
  • Jennifer soon had a series of flashbacks that led to more recovered/repressed memories. She claimed her father had molested her starting from when she was 3 until she was 16 years old, when she went away to college.
  • The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was formed in 1992 by Pamela and Peter Freyd after they found out their adult daughter Jennifer Freyd believed Peter had sexually abused her when she was a child.
  • Peter denied the allegations, and Pamela became concerned about the damaged relationship between Peter and Jennifer.
  • Peter and Pamela concluded that the allegations must have been made up during the course of Jennifer's therapy.
  • Currently, as Jennifer Freyd did not try to pursue action in a court of law, there is no documented outcome as to the "guilt" or "innocence" of Peter Freyd.
What makes the Freyd case so interesting is that:
  1. Peter Freyd is a mathematics professor at the University of Pennsylvania (a highly prestigious job).
  2. Pamela Freyd is an educator (another well-respected job).
  3. Jennifer Freyd is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon.
  4. On the surface, the Freyd family could represent a middle or upper-middle class American family that is obviously doing very well from a socio-economic perspective. You wouldn't think of them as a family that would have these kinds of problems, even though abuse occurs in families across the socio-economic spectrum.
  5. It illustrates the family conflicts that can arise when a child brings forth allegations of abuse against a parent. For instance, Peter Freyd's brother, William, wrote a letter to the PBS show Frontline criticizing their one-sided presentation of repressed memories during the broadcast of Divided Memories which seemed to favor false memory advocates. In this letter, William also stated that in his mind there was abuse in Pamela and Peter Freyd's home while Jennifer and her sisters were growing up.


So with all this controversy, perhaps you're wondering what do scientists really know about human memory?

I won't go into too much detail about it here since I wrote another article about human memory that goes into much more depth. Essentially, most scientists subscribe to an information processing model of memory, meaning they think of the human brain as a computer of sorts. An input or stimulus event occurs, and the event is filtered into short term memory, and possibly, long term memory. There are mechanisms that may "interfere" with the encoding of the memory in your brain which may cause it to be incomplete or forgotten.

Diagram of the Information Processing Model of Memory

There is also debate in the scientific community over how memory recall is performed. Some scientists believe that when you recall a memory, everything about it has to be reconstructed in your brain. Each time you recall it, you accurately recall the gist of the memory, but certain minor (or peripheral) details will be left out. Other scientists believe in a "trace theory of memory", which is the idea that there is a "trace" in our brains which carries the information from the time we first encoded it so it does not have to be reconstructed.

Most of the clinical research has focused on normal memories, and only a little has been done on traumatic memory (memories caused by child abuse, rape, wartime violence, etc.) While scientists disagree on the accuracy and reportability of traumatic memories, the growing body of evidence suggests that repressed memories can and do occur in victims of child abuse. Thus, not every recovered memory of abuse may be false, although it is possible some are.


Why the controversy over "false memory syndrome"?

Essentially, the false memory controversy revolves around 2 points of contention:

  1. The accuracy and completeness of memory.
  2. The suggestibility of memory. Questions that often arise are: Can you influence what someone remembers? Can false memories really be implanted?


Accuracy and completeness of memory

How complete are our memories?

When we encode a memory, how complete is the information we encode? Do we record everything down to the last detail? When we recall memories, how much of the memory can we recall?

Answer: The dominant theory among memory scientists is that humans are able to remember the "gist" at the expense of finer details. In other words, you may be able to recall what you were doing last Christmas, but as you are asked to recall more specific things (such as what color were the pants some of the guests were wearing), you are likely to forget or remember incorrectly.

How accurate are our memories?

Answer: It depends. Let's take a real-life example. Recall the last time you went to the movies. What movie did you see? What was it about? What was the date and time you went to see it?

Now suppose you remembered the movie you saw and what the movie was about. Let's also suppose that you recall that you saw it at 8 p.m. in the evening on November 14. Let' suppose that in actuality, you saw it on November 13 at 7:30 pm. Does this mean that your memory isn't accurate? Do you see the problem?

How accurate your memory is depends on what criteria is being used to determine accuracy. Memory accuracy is a "relative" measurement.

If every erroneous detail counts against the accuracy of the memory, then of course your memory would be labeled more "inaccurate" than if the central feature of the memory (recalling what movie you saw and what it was about) was the only factor in assessing memory accuracy.

That's why it's important when looking at the claims of so-called memory experts that you note how accuracy is being measured. Are the researchers more concerned with the central features of a memory, or the peripheral details?


The Suggestibility of Memory

How susceptible are our memories to suggestion?

It appears that under the right conditions, human memory can be influenced. However, researchers such as Brown remind us that most of the research on memory suggestibility comes not from abuse survivors with recovered memories, but from studies on memory suggestibility with college students. He cautions that there have been no direct empirical studies on suggestibility in psychotherapy, which is often one of the avenues defenders of false memory syndrome take when trying to discredit the idea that recovered memories in therapy are genuine.

Can "false memories" be created?

The short answer is: it's complicated. However, researchers such as Laura S. Brown6,7 believe that they can only be created under very specific conditions with a highly suggestible patient or a patient who receives a lot of interpersonal pressure. Other recovery experts such as Dr. Charles Whitfield believe it is far easier to implant false ordinary memories than to implant false traumatic memories.


What the Professional Medical and Mental Health Establishment Says Regarding The Concept of Repressed Memory

What do professional organizations such as the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, British Psychological Society, and American Psychological Association have to say on the subject of repressed memories and false memory syndrome?

The professional medical and mental health establishment may have some slight differences with respect to the finer points of the false memory syndrome issue, but it is fair to say they take a balanced approach.

  • All agree that there is a consensus among researchers and clinicians that repressed memories can occur in victims of child abuse.
  • All agree that because a therapist can have a substantial influence over their patients, great professional care should be taken when working with patients' memories, especially those regarding abuse.
  • All agree that medical and mental health practitioners should put their patients' medical and mental health needs above all.


The Bottom Line Regarding "False Memory Syndrome" and Repressed Memories

In surveying the information out there regarding false memory syndrome, this author can only conclude that to say that all recovered repressed memories in therapy are false or that all recovered repressed memories in therapy are true is an extreme position which is not representative of the truth.

The repressed memory concept is a complicated subject, and there are often contradictory claims from research studies. This is why the methodology and context of the study is crucial to understanding its conclusions.

The bottom line though is that all the information out there suggests repressed memories do exist, however the mechanisms by which they occur are not well understood. At this current date, it appears impossible to distinguish a true memory from a false one without external, corroborating evidence. If you're an abuse survivor who thinks that they are currently recalling repressed memories of abuse after burying or forgetting about them for so long, then you should consult a mental health professional like a psychologist or psychiatrist. A good mental health professional should help you explore the memory in a safe setting and help you live out the rest of your life in a responsible and fulfilling way.



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