False Memory Syndrome – Is it possible?

When memory is distorted or confabulated, the result can be what has been called the False Memory Syndrome.

Memory is the mental faculty of retaining and recalling past experiences. A repressed memory is one that is retained in the sub conscious mind, where  one is not aware of it but where it can still affect both conscious thoughts and behavior.

When memory is distorted or confabulated, the result can be what has been called the False Memory  Syndrome: a condition in which a person’s identity and interpersonal relationships are entered around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes. Note that the syndrome is not characterized by false memories as such. We all have memories that are inaccurate. Rather, the syndrome may be diagnosed when the memory is so deeply ingrained that it orients the individual’s entire personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts of other adaptive behaviors. The analogy to personality disorder is  intentional. False memory syndrome is especially destructive because the person assiduously avoids confrontation with any evidence that might challenge the memory. Thus it takes on a life of its own, encapsulated and resistant to correction. The person may become so focused on the memory that  he or she may be effectively distracted from coping with real problems in  his or her life.
— John F. Kihlstrom, Ph.D.

There are many models which try to explain how memory works. Nevertheless, we do not know exactly how memory works. One of the most questionable models  of memory is the one which assumes that every experience a person has had is  ‘recorded’ in memory and that some of these memories are of traumatic events  too terrible to want to remember. These terrible memories are locked away in  the sub conscious mind, i.e. repressed, only to be remembered in adulthood  when some triggering event opens the door to the unconscious. And, both  before and after the repressed memory is remembered, it causes physical and  mental disorders in a person.

Some people have made an effort to explain their pain, even cancer, as  coming from repressed memories of incest in the body. Scientists have studied related phenomenon such as people whose hands bleed in certain religious settings. Presumably such people, called stigmatics, “are not  revealing unconscious memories of being crucified as young children, but  rather are demonstrating a fascinating psychogenic anomaly that springs from  their conscious fixation on the suffering of Christ. Similarly, it is possible that conscious fixation on the idea that one was sexually abused  might increase the frequency of some physical symptoms, regardless of whether or not the abuse really occurred.”(Lindsay & Read, 1994)

This view of memory has two elements: (1) the accuracy element and (2) the causal element. The reason this model is questionable is not because people don’t have unpleasant or painful experiences they would rather forget, nor is it claiming that children often experience both wonderful and brutal things for which they have no conceptual or linguistic framework and hence are incapable of understanding them, much less relating it to others. It is questionable because this model  maintains that because (a) one is having problems of functioning as a healthy human being and (b) one remembers being abused as a child that therefore (A) one was abused as a child and (B) the childhood abuse is the cause of one’s adulthood problems.

There is no evidence that supports the claim that we remember everything that we experience. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to support the claim that it is impossible for us to even attend to all the perceptual elements of any given experience, much less to recall them all. There is no evidence to support the claim that all memories of experiences happened as they remembered to have happened or that they have even happened at all. And there is no evidence to support the claim that subjective certainty about the accuracy of memories or the vividness of memories significantly correlates with accuracy. Finally, the claim of a causal connection between abuse and health or behavior does not warrant concluding that ill health, mental or physical, is a ‘sign’ of having been abused.

This model is the basis for a number of pseudoscientific works on child  abuse by self-proclaimed experts such as Ellen Bass, E. Sue Blum, Laura  Davis, Beverly Engel, Beverly Holman, Wendy Maltz and Mary Jane Williams.

Through communal reinforcement many empirically unsupported notions, including the claim that about half of all women have been sexually abused,  get treated as a ‘fact’ by many people. Psychologist Carol Tavris writes

In what can only be called an incestuous arrangement, the authors of these  books all rely on one another’s work as supporting evidence for their own;  they all recommend one another’s books to their readers. If one of them  comes up with a concocted statistic–such as “more than half of all women  survivors of childhood sexual trauma “– the numbers are traded like  baseball cards, reprinted in every book and eventually enshrined as fact.

Thus the cycle of misinformation, faulty statistics and unvalidated  assertions maintains itself. (Tavris, 1993)

The only difference between this group of experts and say, a group of  physicists is that the child abuse experts have achieved their status as authorities not by scientific training but by either (a) experience [they  were victims themselves or they have treated victims of abuse in their capacity as social workers] or (b) they wrote a book on child abuse. The child abuse experts are not trained in scientific research which is not a comment on their ability to write or to do therapy, but which does seem to be one reason for their scientific illiteracy. (Tavris, 1993)

Here are a few of the unproved, unscientifically researched notions that  are being bandied around by these child abuse experts: One, if you doubt  that you were abused as a child or think that it might be your imagination,  this is a sign of ‘post-incest syndrome’. Two, if you can not remember any  specific instances of being abused, but still have a feeling that something  abusive happened to you, ‘it probably did’. Three, when a person can not  remember his or her childhood or have very fuzzy memories, ‘incest must  always be considered as a possibility’. And four, ‘If you have any suspicion  at all, if you have any memory, no matter how vague, it probably really  happened. It is far more likely that you are blocking the memories, denying  it happened’.

the_ultimate_weapon  There have been many symptoms suggested as indicators of past abuse. These symptoms range from headaches to irritable bowls. In fact, one psychologist  compiled a list of over 900 different symptoms that had been presented as  proof of a history of abuse. When he reviewed the professional literature,  he found that not one of the symptoms could be shown to be an inclusive  indication of a history of abuse. Given the lack of consistent scientific  evidence, therapists must be careful in declaring that abuse has in fact  occurred. (London, 1995)

Whole industries have been built up out of the hysteria that inevitably accompanies charges of  the sexual abuse of children. Therapists who are  supposed to help children recover from the trauma of the abuse are hired to  interrogate the child, in order to find out if they have been abused. But  all too often the therapist suggests the abuse to the child and the child  has ‘memories’ of being abused, but no rational person should find a parent  or caretaker guilty on the basis of such tainted testimony. [note 1]

Increasingly throughout the continent, grown children under going therapeutic programs have come to believe that they suffer from “repressed  memories” of incest and sexual abuse. While some reports of incest and  sexual abuse are surely true, these decade delayed memories are too often  the result of False Memory Syndrome caused by a disastrous “therapeutic”  program. False Memory Syndrome has a devastating effect on the victim and  typically produces a continuing dependency on the very program that creates  the syndrome. False Memory Syndrome proceeds to destroy the psychological  well being not only of the primary victim but through false accusations of  incest and sexual abuse other members of the primary victim’s family. The  American Medical Association considers recovered memories of childhood  sexual abuse to be of uncertain authenticity, which should be subject to  external verification. The use of recovered memories is fraught with  problems of potential misapplication.[note 2]

The dangers of this model are apparent: not only are false memories treated  as real memories, but real memories of real abuse may be treated as false  memories and may provide real abusers with a believable defense. In the end,  no one benefits from encouraging a belief in memory which is unfounded.  Whatever the theory of memory one advocates, if it does not entail examining  corroborating evidence and attempting to independently verify claims of  recollected abuse, it is a theory which will cause more harm than good.

Carl Jung, an early Freudian disciple and later heretic, extended this model of memory by adding another area of repressed memories to the unconscious mind, an area that was not based on individual past experiences  at all: the “collective” unconscious. The collective unconscious is the  repository for acts and mental patterns shared either by members of a  culture or universally by all humans. Under certain conditions these  manifest themselves as archetype: images, patterns and symbols, that are  often seen in dreams or fantasies and that appear as themes in mythology,  religion and fairy tales. The Archetype of the Archetype Model can be traced  back to Plato’s various beliefs about the eidos. (Forms of reality which  were variously described by Plato but always were held up as ‘more real’  than the world of sense experience which, in some way, was always held up as  inferior to and dependant on the eidos.)

The Platonic Model avoids the problem of determining whether or not a  memory is accurate by claiming that the memory is not of a personal  experience at all. It also confuses several types of mental states. It completely blurs the distinction between dream states and conscious states  by eliminating the difference between remembering a sense experience one  actually had and remembering a sense experience one never actually had. This  model gives validity to every fantasy and desire. If one is clever, though,  one can destroy the first model with the second one. For example, a Jungian  could claim that the repressed memories of all those who are now blaming  their current troubles on forgotten and repressed memories of child abuse,  are not memories of actual abuse but of an Archetype, the Abused Child  Archetype. The story of Hansel and Gretel might be pulled in for  “scientific” support of the idea. Unsupported assertions might be made  regarding the unconscious desire of all children to be loved by their  parents: as children, love could only be understood in terms of ego  gratification, but as adults love is understood primarily in sexual terms.

Because of the incest taboo, we can not bear the thought of wanting to be  loved sexually by our parents, so this desire must be expressed in a perverse and inverse way: our parents love us sexually. But there is no  evidence for this based upon our past or current relationship with our  parents, so the mind creates the evidence by remembering being sexually  abused as a child. Thus, the memory we have as adults of being sexually  abused by our parents is actually the expression of the universal desire to  be loved by our mother and father. It has nothing to do with any real  experience; it has everything to do with a universal human desire. It also  serves as a convenient excuse to absolve us of all responsibility for our  failures and incompetence. The reason we are so screwed up is because our  parents screwed us!


How accurate and reliable is memory? We’re often wrong in thinking we  accurately remember things. Studies on memory have shown that we often  construct our memories after the fact, that we are susceptible to suggestions from others that help us fill in the gaps in our memories of  certain events. (Hyman, Jr., Husband & Billings, 1995) That is why, for example, a police officer investigating a crime should not show a picture of  a single individual to a victim and ask if the victim recognizes the  assailant. If the victim is then presented a line up and picks out the individual whose picture the victim had been shown, there is no way of knowing whether the victim is remembering the assailant or the picture.
Another interesting fact about memory is that studies have shown that there  is no significant correlation between the subjective feeling of certainty a  person has about memory and that memory being accurate. Also, contrary to  what many believe, hypnosis does not aid memory’s accuracy because subjects  are extremely suggestible while under hypnosis. (Loftus, 1980) It is  possible to create false memories in people’s minds by suggestion.

The mind does not record every detail of an event, but only a few features; we fill in the rest on what “must have been.” For an event to make it to  long term storage, a person has to perceive it, encode it and rehearse it  –tell about it– or it decays. (This seems to be the major mechanism behind  childhood amnesia, the fact that children do not develop long term memory  until roughly age three.) Otherwise, research finds, even emotional experiences we are sure we will never forget –the Kennedy assassination,  the Challenger explosion– will fade from memory, and errors will creep into  the account that remain.(Travis, 1993)

Research articles and court testimony confirm the wide spread use of memory  enhancement techniques, in the belief that these will help recover accurate  “memories”. These techniques include hypnosis, sodium amytal, dream  interpretation, guided imagery, journaling, body massages, participation in  survivor groups and reading of self help books. In the summer of 1993, the  American Medical Association passed a resolution warning of the dangers of  misapplication in the use of these techniques. In June of 1994 they issued a  warning about all recovered memories. Both the AMA and the American  Psychiatric Association have stated:

 ..there is no completely accurate way of determining the validity of reports  in the absence of corroborating information.[note 3]

The problem with the practices mentioned above is that when they are used  they increase the risk of influence and suggestibility.

Why would someone remember something so horrible if it really did not  happen? This is a haunting question, but there are several possible  explanations which might shed light on some of the false memories. A pseudomemory, for example, may be a kind of symbolic expression of troubled  family relationships. There may be a cultural climate in our society in  which the belief in the relationship between sexual abuse and individual  pathology is nurtured. It may be that in such a climate people more readily  believe things happened when they didn’t. When people enter therapy, they do  so to get better. They want to change.

People also tend to look for some  explanation for why they have a problem. Clients come to trust the person  they have chosen to help them. Because they are trying to get better,  clients tend to rely on the therapist’s opinion. If the therapist believes  that the reason that the client has a problem is because of some past  trauma, and especially if the therapist believes that the patient will not get better unless he or she remembers the trauma, the patient will work to  find what he or she thinks is a trauma memory in order to get better.

Richard Ofshe, Ph.D. and Ethan Watters noted that, “No one — not the patients, therapists, parents or critics of recovered memory therapy — question that this therapy is an intensely difficult and painful experience.

That the pain of therapy is real should not be accepted, however, as an  argument that the memories uncovered are accurate. One’s emotional reaction  to a perceived memory need not correlate with the veracity of that event,  but rather only to whether one believes that event to be true.”[note 4]

A-woman-on-a-psychiatrist-001  Therapists may believe that they are helping clients and improving a culture in which sex abuse is far too prevalent. A patient may find group acceptance in the cadre of survivors and find “the” reason for problems.

Patients suffering from severe psychological symptoms are known to engage in  what is called, “effort after meaning” (Bass & Davis, 1988), in that they seek some explanation, however remote, for suffering.

So, should accounts of repressed memory be dismissed out of hand? Of course  not! But there should be an attempt to corroborate such memories with  independent evidence and testimony before drawing conclusions about actual  abuses or crimes. Such accounts should be taken very seriously and should be  critically examined, giving them all the attention and investigative  analysis we would give to any allegation of crime. But we should not rush to  judgement, either about the accuracy of the memories of about the causal connection between past experiences and present problems. We should neither automatically reject as false memories which have been repressed for years  and are suddenly recollected, nor should we automatically accept such  memories as true. In terms of verification of their accuracy, these memories  should not be treated any differently than any other type of memory.


1. Yet, it has happened. In a modern version of the Salem witch hunts, the  McMartin pre-school case exemplifies the very worst in institutionalized justice on the hunt for child molesters.
See, Mason, M. (Sept. 1991). The McMartin case revisited: the conflict  between social work and criminal justice, Social Work, v.36, no.5.  391-396. [on evaluating the credibility of children as witnesses in sexual abuse cases] ,
2. See, Council on Scientific Affairs, (1994).  American Medical Association, June 16.
3. See, Council on Scientific Affairs, (1994).  American Medical Association, June 16.
4.  See, Ofshe, R., & Watters, E., (1994). Making Monsters: False memory Psychotherapy and Sexual Hysteria.  p.109.


Bass, E. & Davis, L., (1988). The Courage To Heal, p.173.  Council on Scientific Affairs, (1994).  American Medical Association, June 16.

Hyman, I.E. Jr., Husband, T.H. & Billings, F.J., (1995).  Prompting false  childhood memories. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 9, pp.181-197.

Lindsay, S. &  Read, D., (1994). Applied Cognitive Psychology, 8, p.302. London., (1995).  Independent Practitioner, March 1, 64.

Loftus, E., (1980).  Memory, Surprising New Insights Into How We Remember  and Why We Forget,  Reading, Mass,: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

Loftus, E., & Ketcham, K., (1987). Eye Witness Testimony: Civil and Criminal, New York, N.Y.: Kluwer Law Book Publishers.

Loftus, E., (1980).  Eye Witness Testimony, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Mason, M., (Sept. 1991). The McMartin case revisited: the conflict between social work and criminal justice,” Social Work, 36, no. 5, pp.391-396.

Ofshe, R., & Watters, E., (1994). Making Monsters: False Memory, Psychotherapy and Sexual Hysteria.  p.109.

Tavris, C., (1993).  Hysteria and the Incest Survivor Machine, Sacramento Bee, Forum section, January 17, p.1.