The recovered memory debate/”false memory” theory

March 13th, 2015

The following articles provide critical analyses of the debate over recovered memory, integrating scientific research, addressing the misnomer “false memory,” and exploring the role of the debate in science and law.

Bremner, J. D., Krystal, J. H., Charney, D. S., & Southwick, S. M. (1996). Neural mechanisms in dissociative amnesia for childhood abuse: Relevance to the current controversy surrounding the “false memory syndrome.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, 153, 71-82. (Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT.)

Abstract: OBJECTIVE: There is considerable controversy about delayed recall of childhood abuse. Some authors have claimed that there is a “false memory syndrome,” in which therapists suggest to patients events that never actually occurred. These authors point to findings that suggest that memory traces are susceptible to modification. The purpose of this paper is to review the literature on the potential vulnerability of memory traces to modification and on the effects of stress on the neurobiology of memory. METHOD: The authors review findings on mechanisms involved in normal memory function, effects of stress on memory in normal persons, children’s memory of stressful events, and alterations of memory function in psychiatric disorders. The effects of stress on specific brain regions and brain chemistry are also examined. RESULTS: Neuropeptides and neurotransmitters released during stress can modulate memory function, acting at the level of the hippocampus, amygdala, and other brain regions involved in memory. Such release may interfere with the laying down of memory traces for incidents of childhood abuse. Also, childhood abuse may result in long-term alterations in the function of these neuromodulators. CONCLUSIONS: John Nemiah pointed out several years ago that alterations in memory in the form of dissociative amnesia are an important part of exposure to traumatic stressors, such as childhood abuse. The studies reviewed here show that extreme stress has long-term effects on memory. These findings may provide a model for understanding the mechanisms involved in dissociative amnesia, as well as a rationale for phenomena such as delayed recall of childhood abuse.

Brown, D. (2000). (Mis) representations of the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse in the courts. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 9(3-4), 79-107. (Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.)

Abstract: This study addresses the (mis) representations made by pro-false memory attorneys and expert witnesses in court regarding the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). Five pro-false memory positions were identified: (1) there is no causal connection between CSA and adult psychopathology; (2) the evidence is insufficient; (3) CSA does not cause specific trauma-related outcomes like borderline and dissociative identity disorder; (4) other variables than CSA explain the variance of adult psychopathology; and (5) the long-term effects of CSA are general and non-specific. Examining the testimony revealed that such pro-false memory testimony was based solely on a partial understanding of retrospective data and that pro-false memory experts do not cite the more recent prospective data. Reviewing the totality of the scientific evidence demonstrates that such pro-false memory testimony is inaccurate and has the potential of misleading the jury. Prospective studies provide sufficient evidence to causally link CSA to a number of areas of adult psychopathology including multiple, co-morbid psychiatric conditions, and possibly to link early parent-infant attachment pathology to the development of borderline and dissociative identity disorder.

Colangelo, J. J. (2009, January-February). The recovered memory controversy: A representative case study. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 18(1), 103-121. (Long Island University, Fresh Meadows, NY.)

Abstract: The recovered memory controversy has been an ongoing debate within the mental health profession for the past two decades. Disagreement remains in the field over the veracity of “forgotten” memories of childhood sexual abuse that are recalled or recovered during therapy. At the heart of the controversy are the concepts of repression and dissociation as well as the impact traumatizing events have on the encoding of memory. This article provides an overview of the central factors in the longstanding debate and presents a detailed clinical case study involving independent corroboration of memories of childhood sexual abuse recovered during treatment, which the author believes provides additional support for the potential veracity of recovered memories.

Dalenberg, C. (2006, October). Recovered memory and the Daubert criteria: Recovered memory as professionally tested, peer reviewed, and accepted in the relevant scientific community. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 7(4), 274-310. (Alliant International University.)

Abstract: Research during the past two decades has firmly established the reliability of the phenomenon of recovered memory. This review first highlights the strongest evidence for the phenomenon itself and discusses the survey, experimental, and biological evidence for the varying mechanisms that may underlie the phenomenon. Routes to traumatic amnesia from dissociative detachment (loss of emotional content leading to loss of factual content) and from dissociative compartmentalization (failure in integration) are discussed. Next, an argument is made that false memory is a largely orthogonal concept to recovered memory; the possibility of one phenomena is largely irrelevant to the potential for the other. Furthermore, some aspects of the false memory research offer supportive data for the recovered memory researcher. Finally, the issue of error rates in making the Daubert case is explored. It is concluded that the weight of the evidence should allow the recovered memory victim to come before the court.

Dallam, S. J. (2001). Crisis or creation? A systematic examination of False Memory Syndrome. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 9(3/4), 9-36. (Cynwyd, PA.)

Abstract: In 1992, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF), an advocacy organization for people claiming to be falsely accused of sexual abuse, announced the discovery of a new syndrome involving iatrogenically created false memories of childhood sexual abuse. This article critically examines the assumptions underlying “False Memory Syndrome” to determine whether there is sufficient empirical evidence to support it as a valid diagnostic construct. Epidemiological evidence is also examined to determine whether there is data to support its advocates’ claim of a public health crisis or epidemic. A review of the relevant literature demonstrates that the existence of such a syndrome lacks general acceptance in the mental health field, and that the construct is based on a series of faulty assumptions, many of which have been scientifically disproven. There is a similar lack of empirical validation for claims of a “false memory” epidemic. It is concluded that in the absence of any substantive scientific support, “False Memory Syndrome” is best characterized as a pseudoscientific syndrome that was developed to defend against claims of child abuse.

Hovdestad, W. E., & Kristiansen, C. M. (1996, Summer). A field study of “false memory syndrome”: Construct validity and incidence. Journal of Psychiatry & Law, 24(2), 299-338. (Carleton University, Department of Psychology, Ottawa, ON, Canada.)

Abstract: False memory syndrome (FMS) is described as a serious form of psychopathology characterized by strongly believed pseudomemories of childhood sexual abuse. A literature review revealed four clusters of symptoms underlying the syndrome regarding victims’ belief in their memories of abuse and their identity as survivors, their current interpersonal relationships, their trauma symptoms across the lifespan, and the characteristics of their therapy experiences. The validity of these clusters was examined using data from a community sample of 113 women who identified themselves as survivors of girlhood sexual abuse. Examining the discriminant validity of these criteria revealed that participants who had recovered memories of their abuse (n = 51), and who could therefore potentially have FMS, generally did not differ from participants with continuous memories (n = 49) on indicators of these criteria. Correlational analyses also indicated that these criteria typically failed to converge. Further, despite frequent claims that FMS is occurring in epidemic proportions, only 3.9%-13.6% of the women with a recovered memory satisfied the diagnostic criteria, and women with continuous memories were equally unlikely to meet these criteria. The implications of these findings for FMS theory and the delayed-memory debate more generally are discussed.

Leavitt, F. (1999). Suggestibility and treatment as key variables in the recovered memory debate. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 17, 5-18.

Abstract: Alleged inducement of sexual trauma memory was studied from the perspective of suggestibility as embodied in false memory theory. The controversial assumption that therapeutic suggestion operates to cause events to be falsely remembered was tested using a sample drawn from practices that contained patients who did, as well as those who did not, recover memories while in treatment. Following two years of treatment, the most suggestible of the patients did not recover memories. Paradoxically, those with the weakest levels of suggestibility recovered memories from the same practices. Since it is not logically conceivable that therapeutic suggestion operates only in the nonsuggestible, the assumptions of false memory theory were interpreted as not relevant for understanding the emergence of memories of childhood sexual trauma. Claims involving simple cause and effect relationships between treatment and memory recovery are not viable.

Whitfield, C. L. (2001). The “false memory” defense: Using disinformation and junk science in and out of court. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 9(3-4), 53-78. (Atlanta, GA.)

Abstract: This article describes a seemingly sophisticated, but mostly contrived and often erroneous “false memory” defense, and compares it in a brief review to what the science says about the effect of trauma on memory. Child sexual abuse is widespread and dissociative/traumatic amnesia for it is common. Accused, convicted and self-confessed child molesters and their advocates have crafted a strategy that tries to negate their abusive, criminal behavior, which we can call a “false memory” defense. Each of 22 of the more commonly used components of this defense is described and discussed with respect to what the science says about them. Armed with this knowledge, survivors, their clinicians, and their attorneys will be better able to refute this defense of disinformation.

Whitfield, C. L., Silberg, J., & Fink, P. J. (2001). Introduction: Exposing misinformation concerning child sexual abuse and adult survivors. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 9(3-4), 1-8. (Atlanta, GA.)

Abstract: This article introduces a special volume on misinformation about child sexual abuse. Despite extensive research findings on the long-term effects and consequences of child sexual abuse, misinformation on this topic is widespread. Several forces have worked to support and disseminate this erroneous information. Because it is difficult to comprehend the horror of sexual crimes against children, society’s denial and disbelief have often unwittingly supported the agendas of those who want to discount or minimize the impact of these crimes. The media has also contributed to the aura of skepticism surrounding claims of sexual abuse and its mental health impact, and has reported favorably on controversial and unproven claims such as the “false memory syndrome.” In the hope of countering misinformation and thus raising the level of discourse to the engagement of real scientific issues, a number of well known and respected researchers and clinicians examine various facets of the problem.

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