False Memory

False Memory 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’. 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 infact 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 …

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