Everyone is aware of the frustration of inaccessible memories, when we cannot recall something that we wish to do, like finding a name, or recalling an event from childhood that must have occurred, or when we fail to recognise a person who appears totally unfamiliar until he proceeds to recount to us when and where we met. Much less familiar is the phenomenon of remembering something to which we have no right – because it is for an event that never occurred.
There is now abundant laboratory evidence for the creation of such false memories (for an academic review, see The Science of False Memory)¹. They are relatively easy phenomenon to generate if a powerful, and repetitive suggestion is made by an authoritative and persuasive mentor, and especially if it is within the context of a compelling wider framework. Clearly false memory can play a dangerous role in witness testimony and other claims for the recall of non-existent or seriously distorted events. The most serious examples, perhaps, are accusations of severe sexual abuse that never occurred, although fervently believed by the accuser. A person who is the target of such an accusation can have his or her life deeply and irrevocably damaged. It is not only fractured families who emerge, but tragically fractured and shattered individuals. And subsequently, if the truth finally emerges, damage can rebound upon the accuser.
The most common context within which these emerge is in forms of therapy based on the tenet that many problems of everyday life, both physical but especially psychological, have developed because of childhood abuse, a view propounded in books such as The Courage to Heal². and other treatises. If the client in such a therapeutic regime cannot remember any such abuse, the claim is that it must have been deeply repressed and made inaccessible, but with appropriate therapy the memory can be ‘recovered.’ And, indeed, clients can come honestly to be persuaded that the recovered memory must be true even if it is not.
There is no solid experimental evidence, as such, for the core tenet of this approach, the repression of traumatic memories. Of course, it is not an easy matter to investigate in the laboratory, and the matter has been controversial for over 100 years. But two Harvard psychiatrists, Drs. Harrison Pope and James Hudson, carried out a determined and thorough search some 10 years ago³ of the published literature, for reliable, acceptable evidence of the repression of memories of sexual abuse, and failed to find a single example or study that stood up to rigorous test. (See articles about their research and its implications in The Times, March 16 and April 11, 1995; see, also, a review by another Harvard psychologist, Richard J. McNally, ‘Science and falsehood of traumatic amnesia’)⁴. Repression is a theory, not a fact. Theory aside, there is ample evidence that, on the contrary, those who have suffered traumatic stress have the opposite problem – it is not that they cannot remember but that they have trouble in forgetting the trauma.
But now there is an accumulation of large numbers of examples of accusations of childhood abuse having been made for which evidence subsequently demonstrated that they could not have happened. It is rare for anyone who has been the object of such a false accusation easily to recover from such an experience, especially if made by a loved one, even if the charge is demonstrated to be false. These are compound fractures that may never heal. Childhood abuse, is, of course, a dire problem not to be underestimated. But adult abuse by fervent accusers, often of a crusading vigilante nature, based on events that never occurred, is a life-shattering experience.
Professor Larry Weiskrantz, FRS.
Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Oxford
This essay was originally published in Fractured Families – The Untold Anguish of the Falsely Accused (BFMS, 2007).
- The Science of False Memory, Brainerd, C. J. Reyna, V. F. (Oxford University Press, 2005).
- The Courage to Heal, E. Davis, L. (Vermilion, first edition in UK 1990; reprinted on numerous occasions up to 2002.
- Pope, JR, H.G., and Hudson, J. I., ‘Can Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse be Repressed?’ Psychological Medicine, 1995, vol. 25, pp. 121 – 126.
- McNally R. J., ‘Science and falsehood of traumatic amnesia’ Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 2004. 11, pp. 29 – 39.