Validity of Recovered Memory Memory is fragile; people forget many things like the lunch they just ate, while believing they saw a celebrity yesterday because they imagined it. So how do people know what is real, what is fake, and what did they simply forget? Recovered memories are an even bigger mystery as they were not previously attainable. How much can people trust these recovered memories if real memory is so unreliable? The validity regarding recovered memories is questionable at best. People are often left without the truth and relationship damage they cannot mend, especially when it involves recovered memories of childhood abuse.
Recovered Memory Definition What is a recovered memory? It “refers to the recall of traumatic events, typically of sexual abuse in childhood, by adults who have exhibited little or no previous awareness of such experiences” (Davies & Dalgleish, 2001, p. xiii). Alongside this idea is false memories, which is simply an untrue memory, and repressed memories, a memory pushed into the unconscious, go hand in hand with recovered memories often being coined as the same or similar things (Pope, 1998). The technique of trying to gain access to these memories is recovered-memory therapy.
Typically, this happens with the aid of a therapist using a variety of techniques such as hypnosis or guided imagery, with the therapist helping the client make sense of their newly recovered memories (Myers, B. , Myers, J. , Herndon, P. , Broszkiewicz N. , & Tar, M. , 2015). Generally, the people who claim to have recovered memories have entered therapy for another reason such as depression, eating disorders, and relationship issues (Gudjonsson, 2001). Child Abuse Recovered memories of child abuse tends to follow a trend of unlikely memories, which lends to the idea that they are false memories.
This can be broken down into two categories: statistical evidence and implausible memories. Statistical evidence is when the account does not match the normal. There is an abundance of information on child abuse, such as who performs the act, the victims, and preferred method. The average victim being a young female, around six to twelve, with sexual acts involving anything except penetration which is often reserved for older victims, with the abuse done by someone the child knows, so incest is not unheard of (Underwager & Wakefield, 1998).
Recovered memories claim much more beyond this, which can be seen in the implausible memories, lending doubt to the truth of the memory. Implausible memories are those that seem inherently fake. Common claims are satanic rituals that involve blood and urine, rape, sacrifice, ritual murders, penetration of toddlers, abusive acts by several people, and torture, though can occur it is very unlikely. Among the most common type of false memory is alien abduction which is uncovered during regression therapy giving doubt to the validity as most people regard this as a fake phenomenon (Loftus & Davis, 2006).
Normal Memory Recall and Suggestibility Normal memory recall is not perfect, which creates scepticism for recovered memories. Underwager and Wakefield (1998) used the analogy that people believe memory” operates like a videotape in which everything that happens to us is recorded and stored into our brain, waiting for the correct playback button to be found so that the memory can be retrieved” (p. 402). In reality memory is much more complicated, and many factors go into the making of memory such as what actually happened, other events that happened near, and what was felt and thought at the time” (Underwager & Wakefield, 1998, p. 02-403).
Thus what you recall may not have been what actually happened. Adding on to this concept, suggestibility can change, or even create, a memory. People can be confident in saying that they actually witnessed an event, when in reality it was a suggestion (Linsdey, 1996). Lindsey (1996) pointed out that “reports based on suggestions often cannot be discriminated from reports based on accurate memories” (p. 271). Thus thoughts turn into reality for some people. The validity of real memory is questionable, so recovered memories are looked at even more wearily since the memory was not there to begin with.
Trauma Recall Normal memory recall with regards to trauma varies. With regards to highly traumatic events, including abuse, it is unlikely a person is going to forget it (Underwager & Wakefield, 1998). Even memories of the highly traumatic events as early as three or four years old can be accurate (Fonagy & Target, 1997). In fact, many accounts report that people cannot forget the event (Weiskrantz, 1997), often dealing with odd feelings and flashbacks (Bonanno & Keuler, 1998). Children who have witnessed a parent being murdered often deal with intrusive thoughts.
Children who lived through war time trauma, such as shelling, never experience amnesia of the event (Bonanno & Keuler, 1998). Even though the trauma memory may not complete in many cases, “memories may be fragmented and impaired, complete amnesia for traumatic episodes is extremely rare” (Underwager & Wakefield, 1998, p. 404). Though trauma, such as sexual abuse, can be forgotten, but not repressed (Underwager & Wakefield, 1998). Traumatic events may be forgotten, such as assaults, but are often “readily recalled when there are cues” (Underwager & Wakefield, 1998, p. 403).
Childhood sexual abuse may be forgotten for many reasons. It may simply have not been traumatic. The victim may have been to young too understand it was wrong, or even be able to recall later in life (see infantile amnesia) (Underwager & Wakefield, 1998). It may have been over a short time period (Fonagy & Target, 1997). Child sexual abuse is also a taboo subject therefore people avoid talking about it (Underwager & Wakefield, 1998), as well it may have been embarrassing for them (Weiskrantz, 1997). The experience may have been painful and the victim may not want to think about it (Underwager & Wakefield, 1998).
And finally, the experience may “have been an unpleasant but relatively unimportant event in the same category as countless other unpleasant childhood events” (Underwager and Wakefield, 1998, p. 403 ). Thus people may have forgotten they were abused for a variety of reasons, but if the event was traumatic enough, like what is being recalled in therapy, it is unlikely it was forgotten and is a false memory. Infantile Amnesia and Age Regression The natural phenomenon of infantile amnesia raises concerns with recovered memory.
Infantile Amnesia is “the age before which an individual cannot accurately recall any event” (Malinoski & Lynn, 1998, p. 110), which is generally between three and four years of age (Malinoski & Lynn, 1998). This is thought to be because no proper belief system is in place which allow memories to be built upon and progress (Stein, 1996). Since many cases of repressed memories of child abuse occur before this time frame, claiming abuse as early as the first few days after birth (Loftus & Davis, 2006) it is unlikely they are remembering anything.
Alongside this, when adults are asked to age regress to an earlier time in their life, adults make their regressed self look appropriate for the age based on their knowledge of children. In reality however, their regressed behaviour does not match what a child of that age would do. In addition, during age regression, people are open to suggestibility (DuBreuil, Garry & Loftus). False Memory How do researchers know that there is such as thing as false memory? One of the ways is by intentionally creating false memories in participants.
Weiskranz (1997) acknowledged a study where a researcher had parents tell a false story to their teenagers, where at the age of five they were lost in an arcade and a strange man led them away. Within days the participants began describing the event, “descriptions of the man, his clothing, the distress of being lost, and so forth” (Weiskrantz, 1997, p. 13). Davies described an experiment where a researcher exposed participants to an event, and later in questioning mentioned an object. Later on participants relay that they had seen said object (Davies, 2001).
Davis and Loftus pointed out how this can have damaging effects as well, when a participants were told they had gotten sick from a certain food as kids, grew up to avoiding that food (Loftus & Davis, 2006). If false memories can be created through suggestion of mundane events, is does not seem far fetched that false memories of abuse can be created. Another way of knowing that false memories exist is the fact that people with frontal lobe damage “readily fabricate and believe elaborate memories that are confabulated in order to tie together the real bits of memory that they retrieve” (Schooler, 1994, p. 90). As well as this, reality monitoring has shown that people can confuse what actually happened with what was only imagined. All of these memories as well are believed to be true (Schooler, 1994). Note, there is also no good scientific way to tell false memories from true memories, other than corroboration, either from family, photographs, and hospital records (Underwager & Wakefield, 1998). Why Do People Believe False Memories? How do people become to believe they were sexually abused as children?
There are a number of theories with regards to this question. People enter therapy looking for answers to symptoms they are experiencing, so when a therapist says it is because of childhood sexual abuse, people are likely to believe it as it is a concrete answer. The validity problem stems from giving this diagnosis with no other pieces of evidence available pointing towards abuse. This also distracts the patient and therapist from the real problem the patient entered therapy for (Kihlstrom, 1998).
Persuasiveness is another reason. People readily accept and follow authority figures, inclined to believe what they say is true (Kihlstrom, 1998). Schooler (1998) gave the examples of Nazi Germany and Milgrams obedience studies, where people accept what an authority figure says. Society today also has extensive media coverage on sexual abuse and incest, often glorifying the details, and speculating what may have happened (Kihlstrom, 1998).
Infantile amnesia is another tool used to make people believe they were abused at a young age, “the very fact that someone cannot remember instances of abuse is turned into evidence they were in fact abused” (Kihlstrom, 1998, p. 21). With all this in mind “false memories are most likely to occur when suggestive influences are strong and concern an event or time period that is poorly remembered” (Lindsey & Read, 2001, p. 80). Legal With all this question of validity of recovered memories in mind, how is it being taken care of in the legal syste?.
Magner and Parkinson’s (2001) give four reasons as to why recovered memories are troublesome when it comes to legal processing (a) the memory may not be clear enough to charge an individual; (b) The second being the therapy to retrieve these memories may have added suggestion; (C) the rest of the therapy may have been guided by the newly retired memory; (d) repeating the story may change events (p. 53-54). Legal action can be taken against the accused, and in many jurisdictions only a witness testimony is needed to prosecute, though in some cases corroboration, or external evidence, is needed (Magner & Parkinson, 2002).
Even so, cases have been won with recovered memories alone, and for large sums of money (Underwager & Wakefield, 1998). Legal action can be taken against the therapist for suggesting false memories, and essentially creating distress for all parties, the people who thought they were abused and the people accused especially if they are innocent (Magner & Parkinson, 2001). Conclusion The validity of recovered memories is questionable due to the nature of the events, the time at which they occurred, and the technique used to retrieve the events involves suggestibility and an authority figure.
Though people believe these memories to be true which can cause them to take action, such as criminal proceedings against who they thought abused them, which can be distressing for all parties, but also leave relationships in ruins, hefty lawsuits, and lives lost behind bars. Future research should look into the long term effects of recovered memory individuals who claimed abuse and it was disproven. Do they have doubts in their memory now? Have they mended their relationship with who they accused? Are they undergoing any other type of therapy? And do they still believe they were abused?