The science of false memory

The Controversy Surrounding Recovered Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse and the Legal Implications for Court Cases.


Recovered memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA) have been a very controversial issue and a topic of heated debate within the field of Psychology. During the early 1990's when the debate reached its peak, it was described as the memory wars (Schater, 1995). There has been a vast amount of literature focusing on the controversies surrounding recovered memories of CSA and the legal implications which follow as a result.

There are three main factors central to the debate of recovered memory; the first factor being whether recovered memories actually exist or whether they are the result of suggestive therapy techniques. The controversy surrounding recovered memories of CSA was initially sparked by such extreme views (Colangelo, 2004). Based on the recovered memory debate there are two main conflicting positions; some experts deny the existence of recovered memories, arguing that traumatic memories, in many cases are more difficult to forget and are 'unforgettably engraved on the mind' (Pope, Oliva, & Hudson, 1999). Evidence from disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have been used to support such views. On the other hand some experts argue that some experiences can be so traumatic that they can be repressed in the mind, so such memories cannot be consciously accessed. This is argued to be a defence mechanism of the mind in order to protect from psychological harm, memories can be recovered later in life.

The second factor key to the debate are the concepts used to describe recovered memory and the mechanisms involved. Much of the controversy in the literature focuses on terminology. Some concepts are used differently by different theorists and are not very well defined (Fivush & Edwards, 2004). Colangelo (2009) argues that the concepts of repression, dissociation, trauma and how memories are encoded are at the heart of the debate.

The third factor central to the debate and arguably the most important, is the reliability of recovered memories. If recovered memories hold some truth, it is important to assess their reliability as this can have a major impact on legal cases and could be a determiner of a wrongful or rightful conviction. In the past there have been many high profile court cases involving recovered memories of CSA and it came to light that reliance on recovered memories have, in some cases lead to false allegations and wrongful convictions. The reliability of recovered memories has mainly come under scrutiny due to the nature of which they are recovered and in what context, memories are very open to distortion and it has been demonstrated that false memories can be implanted (e.g. Loftus). However this is not to suggest that recovered memories are completely unreliable and hold no truth.

The factors outlined are of great concern and importance to the recovered memory debate and have important legal implications which must be considered. There still remains little scientific consensus concerning recovered memories and their application in court cases. This article will review......

Defining Recovered Memories and Questions Surrounding their Existence.

Lindsay and Read (1995) described recovered memories of CSA as:

Cases in which adults initially believe they were not sexually victimized as children and later come to believe they were, rather than the cases in which people always knew they had survived such abuse and remember additional details.

However such a straight forward definition is rarely possible or accepted by other experts. Defining recovered memories of CSA has proven to be a very difficult task; there are many differing definitions and explanations with no universal consensus on the issue. It is even disputed as to whether recovered memories actually exist; there is vast disagreement amongst professionals with some completely denying the possibility of repressing a memory which could later be recovered. Evidence to support the latter argument comes from mental health issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).The controversy in the literature tends to focus on the concepts used to describe recovered memories; they appear to cause further complications in defining recovered memories. The concepts of repression, dissociation, trauma and how memories are encoded are at the heart of the debate (Colangelo, 2009).

Explanations for forgetting: Repression, Dissociation and motivated forgetting.

Repression and dissociation are frequently mentioned in the literature as possible explanations for how individuals forget and later recovered memories of traumatic events. Although the concept of repression as being related to or responsible for absent memory has also been challenged by many memory researchers and false memory advocates (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994; Ofshe & Walters, 1994).There is a lack of distinction between the two concepts and confusion often arises as the two terms are frequently used interchangeably (Freyd, 1996). Whether repression and dissociation are the same or distinct is subject to debate among experts.

The concept of repression was originated by Freud in 1986, although Freud himself abandoned the theory of repression, it re-popularized during the 1980's and 1990's in close association with high profile cases of recovered memories of CSA. Repression has been defined as; a memory of an event which is usually traumatic in nature, is stored by the unconscious mind but outside the awareness of the conscious mind. This suggests that although the event has been stored in the memory, it has been block and made inaccessible to the conscious. It is argued that this process acts as a defence mechanism for the mind protecting it from psychological harm. The memory of the event is not lost and remains stored in the unconscious which could lead to recovery at a later date.

Freud put forward that 'the essence of repression lies simply in turning something away and keeping it at a distance, from the conscious mind'. This has caused some confusion and dispute amongst experts. With this description from Freud it suggests that the initial truing away of the traumatic memory many in fact be a more or less conscious decision, this then brings into the idea of motivated forgetting. Mollon argues that to keep something from the conscious mind is a cognitive process which could be achieved in different ways and with varying degrees of success. He also goes on to argue that we don't have to think in terms of absolute or 'robust' repression when considering memory disturbances in those who have suffered childhood trauma. Within the literature there is an uncertainty of whether repression should be thought of as a process which is unconscious from the outset (Brewin & Andrews, 1998).

Dissociation is also considered to be another major defence mechanism of the mind in terms of forgetting. It has been implicated as a factor contributing to gaps in memories noted in studies of recovered memories. Brewin and Andrews (1998) state that a dissociative state is an altered state of consciousness in which ordinary perceptual, cognitive or motor functioning is impaired. It can be described as isolation of experience, memory or mental content from conscious awareness. It has also been proposed by other trauma theorists that dissociation occurring during the traumatic event is a defence that prevents the individual from experiencing the full impact of what is happening (...). Retrieval reflects the fact that little if any conscious encoding took place at encoding. However this suggests that the encoding of the event is disrupted and therefore not completely stored consciously or unconsciously, perhaps this is where the distinction between repression and dissociation can be drawn.

A Dissociative Experience Scale (DES) was developed to measure an individual's tendency to experience dissociation (Bernstein & Putnam, 1986). Many experts suggest that individuals with higher scores on the DES are more likely to have false memories can appear to be unable to distinguish between memories, fantasies, events and thoughts (Hyman & Billings, 1998; Whalen & Nash, 1996). It is therefore theorised that individuals who show high levels of dissociation are more likely or more willing to accept external information as personal memory. However high DES scores do not show a reduced accuracy for everyday memories (Platt et al, 1998). The DES brings into view the important fact that there are individual differences in forgetting and remembering and that some individuals may be more prone than others to accept false memories.

There are many variations of forgetting and remembering as it is such a complex process. Several studies of memory for CSA suggest that active inhibition may take place, and there are a number of individual cases of motivated forgetting and subsequent remembering documented in the literature (Christianson & Nilsson 1989, Schooler 1996). Motivated forgetting causes yet more confusion to the debate of recovered memory and the concept of repression as it requires yet further distinction. It raises the question, if people adopt a technique of motivated forgetting and are successful with it but then later recover the memory would the term repression be appropriate to use? This takes us back to the question whether repression is an unconscious process entirely or if the beginnings of it can be conscious and effortful forgetting.

When discussing recovered memories of CSA we must also consider the fact that it is indeed possible to forget remembering. Schooler et al (2001) demonstrated through case studies a forgot-it-all-along effect, this is when people have forgotten prior instances of recollecting past events. Schooler and Shobe (2001) published several case descriptions of individuals who experienced recovered memories, in two of these cases, partners of the women who had reported a recovered memory of abuse, said that their spouses had talked about the event prior to the recovered memory experience. The evidence from these case descriptions demonstrate that it is possible to forget prior remembering of the abuse and mistakenly believeing it had not come to mind until the recovered memory experience (Geraerts et al 2008).

According to Schooler (2001) the prior remembering of the event may be different and involve a different emotional experience than having a recovered memory experience. For example in the case description of TW, her husband reported that when she had previously talked about the event it was with 'little expression of emotion'. It is suggested that during a recovered memory experience, the event is recalled in a qualitatively different way from past occasions of remembering. During a recovered memory experience, the person is often shocked, surprised and feels an emotional rush, this is likely to be what has just a significant impact on peoples assessment of prior knowledge of the event and may lead to an underestimation of the prior remembering.

The case descriptions published had a significant impact on the recovered memory debate as they provide evidence which contradicts the idea that all recovered memories always refer to fictions events. The case descriptions provide strong a strong evidence, the case descriptions published all had corroborating evidence and the memories were recovered outside of a therapeutic context, this is important as arguments against the existence of recovered memories tend to attack the fact that there is often little corroborating evidence and argue that the memories recovered are the result of suggestive therapy techniques.

Explanations for forgetting: Repression, Dissociation, PTSD and Motivated Forgetting

A substantial amount of the evidence to argue against recovered memories is from studies and cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is typified by involuntary and intrusive memories of the traumatic experience. It is often the case that such memories cannot be expelled from the mind despite the individuals best efforts not to think about the event. Many experts argue if anything, traumatic memories are more difficult to forget than regular day to day memories. Some experts even go as far to say that experiences such as combat, rape and other horrific experiences are unforgettably engraved on the mind (Pope, Oliva & Hudson, 1999). There is also evidence from behavioural neuroscientists, such as Mc Gaugh (2003) who have provided evidence showing that the release of stress hormones during intensely negative emotional events strengthens the memory for the experience, and this process may underlie the memrobility of the trauma.

However Mc Nally et al ( 2006) provides a possible explanation as to why recovered memories of CSA may have a different process to memories of traumatic experience which cause PTSD. It is put forward that if a child experiencing a traumatic experience such as sexual abuse, at the time of the event, the child may fail to understand CSA as abuse and therefore fail to experience it as terrifying when it occurred which could therefore discount the CSA as a traumatic event. Mc Nally et al found in their studies that individuals who reported having recovered memories of CSA are often more traumatised after recalling the memories as adults and finally realised what had occurred was sexual abuse.

Psychotherapy and False Memories

Another reason the existence of recovered memories comes under so much scrutiny is the context in which they are recovered. It is often argued that suggestive techniques used in therapy such as hypnosis and guided imagery etc can implant false memories. Although many studies have proven that false memories can be implanted, it is difficult to generalise from experimental studies of some times trivial events to the recovery of memories of CSA. There are two major risks when dealing with recovered memories of CSA, the denial of a real and true case and the acceptance of a false case. This causes major complications within legal cases and also has a very dramatic impact of individual's family relationships.

Misleading assumptions and misguided therapeutic practices resulted in an epidemic of false memories and accusations. In response to this, the term False Memory Syndrome was introduced and the False Memory Foundation (FMF) was formed. The FMF was formed to support falsely accused families. Memory is malleable and certain therapeutic techniques may lead to the creation of false memories in some individuals. Memory is prone to error, we interpret and reinterpret our perceptions of past events; interweaving memory and confabulation; autobiographical remembering is like telling ourselves a story, this story may evolve and change (Mollon 2002). It is also important to consider Kanovitz's (1992) point that memory errors hypnosis laboratory experiments demonstrate are mistakes about details of events and not about whether an event occurred.

According to Loftus (1993) repressed memories recovered during the course of therapy may be false, the creation based on the demands of the interview context. In many cases of recovered memories of CSA, the individuals were seeking therapy due to other conditions, most commonly eating disorders and depression and then throughout the course of therapy memories of abuse become recovered. Hypnosis can be misleading when used for purposes of memory recovery, especially if it is combined with communication of incorrect beliefs about the accuracy and avalibility of memory. It has been argued that some therapists prematurely decide the victim is an abuse victim and use inappropriate techniques to uncover these memories of abuse which can lead to the implantation of false memory. However it should be noted that for the most part, it is not the intention of the therapist to create and implant false memories.

A long history of research on human memory documents the extent to which misleading suggestions can distort the recall of events (Lindsay & Read,1994) and demonstrates that under the right circumstances, false memories can be implanted quite easily in some individuals. One well known study conducted by Loftus et al (1987), demonstrated a misinformation effect and the possibility of distorting memories by suggestion. The study involved participants watching a video clip of a car crash, the participants acted as witnesses of the accident. The clip was an automobile accident at an intersection with a stop sign. Half of the participants received a suggestion that the sign in the clip was a yield sign; the participants who had not received the false suggestion were much more accurate in their recollection of the road traffic sign. The study shows that when people witness an event and are later exposed to misleading information about it, their recollections often become distorted. The study highlights that misinformation has the potential for invading our memories when we talk to other people, when we are suggestively interrogated or when we read or view media coverage about some event which we may have experienced ourselves (Loftus 1987).

The study has been replicated many times and the conclusions drawn have been supported by other studies, however it can be criticised on several grounds, particularly when applied to recovered memories of CSA; although it was not the intention of the study to be applied to recovered memories of CSA, the study was initially focused on the reliability of eye witness testimony but it still holds important implications for the recovered memory debate in terms of credibility and reliability of the recovered memories. One criticism is that the participants are not experiencing the event realistically as it is just a television clip, in a real life situation individuals may have a different response and it would have more of an emotional impact upon the individual witnessing the event first hand. It is also important to note that it is one thing to change a few details of an event but something entirely different to implant a completely false memory of an event that never happened. Loftus and her colleagues acknowledged this and went out to investigate if it is in fact possible to implant a false memory.

Loftus and Pickrell (1995) preformed the 'shopping mall study' in order to investigate if false memories could be implanted. The experiment involved participants aged between 18 and 53; they were each given four short narratives describing childhood events which occurred around the ages of 5 and 6 years old. Three of the narratives were of true events which had happened to the participant, one was an untrue narrative, and families provided the true narratives and verified that the untrue narrative had not been experienced by the participant. The untrue narrative was a description of being lost in a shopping mall; the scenario included the following elements: lost for an extended period of time, crying, aid and comfort by an elderly woman, and finally, being reunited with the family. The results of the study showed that 25% of the participants reported being able to remember the event of being lost in a shopping mall, even though it had never actually occurred. Many of these participants went on to embellish details about this experience that had not been supplied by investigators. The conclusions that can be drawn from this study are that it is possible to implant a false memory. The results demonstrate that participants actually believed that the event had taken place, not only this; they went on to embellish the story believing that they were remembering the event. This suggests that once a suggestion has been made, this can develop into a fully blown detailed account of a memory of an event that did not occur.

Many investigators have replicated the lost in the mall technique to implant false memories of events that would be more unusual and in some cases more traumatic in nature had the events actually occurred. For example participants have been led to believe that they have been hospitalized overnight (Hyman, Husband & Billings, 1995; Hyman & Pentland, 1996) or experienced an incident of almost drowning and having to be rescued by a life guard (Heaps & Nash, 2001). Most studies have found that a significant minority of participants will develop a partial or complete false memory. Individual differences are an important factor to consider when investigating the implantation of false memories. Some people have a restraint to suggestion where as others are more vulnerable and sensitive to suggestion. Individual differences have also been found to play an important role in the way in which people experience and remember things, for instance, as already mentioned some people may experience a dissociative state during a traumatic event.

The studies mentioned along with other studies in the area are not without critics, it has been argued that such laboratory studies reveal nothing helpful to the understanding of memories of abuse (Pezdek, 1994). Brown (1995) states that caution should be exercised in generalizing the Loftus study of lost in a mall to other situations, as it has been criticised for manifold methodological flaws, including the sample and possible effects of social influence.

Legal implications

During 1990, the landmark case of George Franklin went to trial. His daughter Eileen Franklin provided the major evidence against her farther; accusing him of and having him convicted of the sexual abuse and murder of a school friend. The case did not go to court until 20 years after the incident had taken place, this was because it was claimed that Eileen had repressed the memory of witnessing her father murdering the 8 year old girl. A very important fact to consider about the case is that Eileen initially recovered her memory outside of a therapeutic context. The memories apparently came back to Eileen was playing with her daughter and a particular way her daughter looked at her triggered the first memory of witnessing the murder. Eileen's memory report was believed by her therapist, several members of her family and the jury who convicted George Franklin to life imprisonment (Loftus, 1993).

The ruling of the Franklin case was overturned in 1995 by a federal appeals court. The initial conviction rested on Eileen Franklins 'eye witness' testimony, there was no physical evidence linking George Franklin to the murder and despite Eileen's estrangement from her father and evidence from a psychologist challenging the veracity of Eileen's claims, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. During the appeal the courts noted that the entire subject of repressed memory is highly controversial and the accuracy of such memories are subject to much debate, George Franklins case was overturned after serving a number of years in prison. This trial brought to attention the troubling question of how far courts and juries can rely upon evidence from recovered memories to prove a person's innocence or guilt. The case highlights that in a court of law a person should remain 'innocent until proven guilty', evidence from recovered memories alone are not adequate enough to convict, it is vital to have another form of corroborating evidence in order to ensure a rightful conviction.

A vital question of the recovered memory debate, which requires much attention, is whether recovered memories are reliable enough to be used in legal court cases in order to convict. Scientific evidence has lead to a general conclusion that both true recovered memories and false recovered memories are possible, but the legal profession is not interested in generalities. The most important factor within a legal context is whether the particular memory of a particular individual is reliable.

According to Davies and Dalgleish (2001), recovered memories are problematic in a legal context because of four reasons; 1. Fragments of a memory may not present a sufficiently clear picture of a specific event to form the basis of a criminal charge 2. The process of reconstruction may affect the reliability- when a judge or jury must be satisfied of the truth of allegations, beyond reasonable doubt, a period of amnesia may be enough reason for sufficient doubt 3. Psychiatric or therapeutic process may affect the content of memory due to suggestibility 4. Repeated narrating of a memory may change the content and meaning to an individual.

There are also the legal implications for the therapist to consider, after high profile cases such as the Franklin case, therapist became the target of law suits with many coming forward to sue the therapist for malpractice. This resulted in many therapists becoming wary of suggestive techniques and avoiding cases involving recovered memories. In terms of suing the therapist it is important to think about whether they were working within the best interest of the client and employed the appropriate techniques. Recovering false memories of CSA has a devasting impact on individuals and families.

What has been put in place to overcome these problems?

It is now generally accepted that hypnosis is admissible for court cases and in some circumstances evidenced uncovered through hypnosis is rejected due to the questionability of reliability. It is important not to get carried away with this theme, it is essential to appreciate that having been in therapy is not sufficient to assume that a recovered memory report is false or even distorted (Geraets et al). On the other hand it is also of equal importance for courts and juries to consider that memories recovered through therapy may have been contaminated by potentially biasing influences (Neisser & Hyman). It is important to find a balanced perspective. Recovered memories alone do not provide sufficient enough evidence to convict a person of a crime, because as already discussed, there is the very realistic possibility that the memories have been contaminated, fabricated and in some cases even implanted.

The BPS set up an investigation of the recovered memory debate, it face very strong criticism and was said to be appearing to support recovered memory therapy (Weiskrantz, 1995). In defence, Mollon (2002) argues that the intention of the investigation was to discourage extreme points of view and potentially harmful forms of therapy. The BPS set out guideline for therapists cautioning against the use of suggestive techniques. Mollon (2002) also argues that psychologists/ therapists can be open, sensitive and responsive to patient's histories without using suggestive memory techniques. He goes on to state that by not using such techniques, the likelihood of implanting false memories will be reduced, but this does not go to say that the support for survivors of abuse will reduce and does not ignore the fact that actual abuse occurs.

It is essential that courts and juries are informed of the context in which memories have recovered, as this may have some influence. Geraets et al argues that spontaneously recovered memories are more likely to reflect genuine memories of abuse. However this view has been contended and we can consider the case mentioned of George Franklin which highlights that recovered memories should have corroborating evidence and cannot stand alone. It is important for courts to view case of recovered memories case by case rather than relying on generalisations, this could be the difference between a wrongful or rightful conviction.


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