False Memories and Dangerous Therapies


This article was originally produced in The Newsletter of the British False Memory Society (Vol. 21, No. 1 – July 2013).

The problem

The bulk of false memory cases we hear about at the BFMS concern memories of childhood abuse which were recovered by an adult undergoing therapy. These apparent memories are not in fact recovered at all, because they are not recollections of actual events; they are false memories, produced by very bad therapeutic practice. What is worse, the bad practice is not accidental: the procedures are carried out deliberately.

Why do therapists cause harm?

Of course they do not intend to, and most do only good, but some are influenced by three misguided beliefs, ideas which are unfortunately very plausible. They are as follows:

  1. If you were abused as a child your brain protected you from the awful effects, by repressing all knowledge of the event.
  2. The protection is never complete, so some symptoms (often quite common ones, such as depression) will emerge in adulthood.
  3. The only way to a cure is to remember and then ‘work through’ what happened.

Working in this framework, some therapists will interpret almost any symptom as abuse, and denials by the client are explained as the result of repression. The therapist goes to work, helping the client to remember what happened, and the procedures used (trying to picture likely events, seeing if they feel familiar, sometimes employing hypnosis) cause many people to feel that they are beginning to remember things. These are not real memories.

But didn’t Freud prove we repress things?

Freud didn’t prove anything, although he did have various theories, including on repression, most of which have been discredited. He was working a century ago, and we have learned an enormous amount about the workings of the brain since then. Unfortunately, because Freud was one of the first in the field and his ideas were simple to grasp, the theories have entered popular culture. The truth about brain function, including memory and the response to abuse, is very complex. Nevertheless, our Scientific Advisory Board assures us that modern brain science (1) calls into question all the assertions (a), (b), (c).

Why are therapists allowed to continue these practices?

Many culprits are not properly trained psychologists, so do not come under the British Psychological Society umbrella. Currently, the law does not prevent any person from offering a psychotherapeutic service. Until such time as this situation is changed the BFMS believes that the best weapon against these practices is education. We urge you to help us disseminate the details provided in this article as widely as possible.


(1) Those wishing to know more of the science behind this assertion may request the original Advisory Board document: BFMS Position Statement on the Recovery of Memory in Therapy.

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