False Memory Syndrome

False Memory Syndrome

After blogging about how we store and recall I’ve had a couple of questions about the use of hypnosis to recover lost or forgotten memories.  So I thought it would be useful to describe why this isn’t practical, and the phenomenon of false memory syndrome.

As far back as 1974 research into memory by psychologists Loftus and Palmer showed how easily memory can be distorted or created.  They asked people to view footage of a car accident and then asked them questions about it a week later.  Although no glass had been broken in the accident simply by asking participants about the “smash” rather than the “collision” Loftus and Palmer found that people described seeing broken glass.  Not only did they find that memory is significantly influenced by even quite subtle suggestions, but that the length of time that has elapsed since the incident greatly increases the likelihood of creating a false memory.

Of course most of us accept that our memory can become distorted with age but the idea of someone implanting a false memory can seem more far-fetched.  However the work of Loftus and Pickrell (who conducted the experiment with an implanted memory of seeing Daffy Duck) showed that it can be easily achieved in a significant proportion of the population.  Over a series of interviews seven out of 24 claimed to remember an incident that had in fact been invented by researchers.  Perhaps even more surprisingly six of the seven continued to insist that the event was real when the nature of the experiment and false memory were revealed.

The three factors that Loftus identified as contributing to the creation of false memories are professional or social demands to recall events; using imagination to fill in gaps in memories; and being discouraged from thinking critically about the “recovered” memory.  These are particularly relevant to therapeutic settings because they can all be present in the therapist/client relationship.

It was false memory syndrome that fuelled the rash of ritual abuse allegations made from the late 1980’s in the UK.  Subsequent reviews found that the “recovered” memories at the root of the allegations were the result of poorly constructed or managed interviews.  As a result nearly 1,000 parents stated that they had been the subject of allegations based on a false memory according to the 1998 Brandon Report commissioned by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

The whole notion of “recovered” memory relies on the idea that traumatic events are buried by the subconscious, an idea that has its roots in the late 19th century Freudian model of repressed memories.  However our understanding of the physical processes in the brain, and our theory of mind, have developed since that time, and the model of memory as being a contemporaneous and fixed record of events has been discredited.

Not only do we have a different understanding of how memory works, but we have direct evidence that the mind, rather than repressing traumatic memories will instead replay them, and sometimes in ways that are disruptive and unbidden.  It’s this that is at the root of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and which sees people subject to intrusive memories rather than lose all recollection of them.

It’s for these reasons – the malleability of memory, the effect of suggestion made through the choice of words and line of questioning, and the further suggestibility of the hypnotic state – that I don’t help people to “recover” memories.  Quite simply it would be unethical of me when I know that I am far more likely to create a false memory, and to do so in such a way that neither myself or the client may know it to be false.

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