Recovered Memory: Syndrome, Therapy & Controversy

Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

Explore the idea and evidence behind recovered memories. How well has the idea of recovered or suppressed memories been researched? Has it ever come up in a larger context, such as court?

What is a 'Memory'

The study of memory began in the field of philosophy, with people conjecturing and debating on the nature of it and what it means. As the philosophical debates gave way to empirical research, there were many ideas that were advanced and some that fell away.

Memory is the process of encoding, storing, and retrieving information. If you aren't familiar with these terms, encoding is the process of taking external information and putting it in your brain. Storing information means keeping it in there and not losing it or mixing it up. And retrieving the information is the act of recalling something.

Memory is often divided into a few categories. Procedural memory is a memory that is recalled by doing something, like riding a bike or setting up a chessboard. Declarative is divided into two subcomponents, semantic and episodic. Semantic memory is concerned with facts, like Africa is a continent or bikes have two wheels. Episodic memory is the memory dealing with episodes of your life, like the time you cut your hand on your 10th birthday party.

Recalling Memories

When a person recalls an episodic memory, they think really hard about something and they remember it. Almost like a video recorder, right? Well, no. Not really. Memory is imperfect and only encodes pieces of information. Later, you try and recall the pieces of the memory by using cues, or memory-triggering devices. This whole process is more like being an archeologist. The archeologist finds pieces of dinosaur bones (fragments of memories) in old dirt (cues) and attempts to reconstruct them (remembering). The process is imperfect, and sometimes memories can be skewed by current influences (happy people have a hard time recalling bad memories) and influences at the time of encoding (drunk people don't remember a lot of stuff).

Recovering a Memory by Therapy

Some have claimed that a person can suppress memories and that to recover them, the person must undergo a special form of psychotherapy. There are no official schools of thought that treat or recover memories, but psychoanalysis has strong roots in the idea of repressed memories. There is a fine line between repressed, which is done almost consciously, and suppressed, which is usually an unconscious technique. The suppressed memory is usually sexual or physical abuse at the hands of a parent or caretaker and is often considered too traumatic for a child to deal with, so they suppress it.

Most often, this therapy involves the use of hypnosis. Hypnosis is a procedure that puts a person in an extreme state of relaxation and suggestibility. Despite the fact that hypnosis has been proven to 1) not increase the recall of memory and 2) increase the likelihood of 'remembering' things that did not occur, it is still used by ethically questionable psychotherapists to recover repressed memories. The APA further states in regards to attempts to recall childhood sexual abuse through hypnosis that the 'validity of such therapies has been challenged. 'Other techniques include using guided imagery, sedatives, hallucinogenic, or a religious contact (specific case example below). With this in mind, I want to direct your attention to a researcher in the field of memory: Elizabeth Loftus.

Elizabeth Loftus is a memory researcher who found that when an authority figure provides a person with incorrect and correct statements about a person's past, they will believe they are all true. Her most poignant work was giving participants four stories, three true ones and a false story about being lost in a mall. They were asked to recall and provide any details they could about all four incidences. After a month, they were again asked about the four incidences, and 75% of participants recalled being lost in the mall. This is without altering a person's perceptions or placing them in a state of high suggestibility, this is just asking someone to remember something that did not happen.

Graham Gorman published an article in 2008 in the 'European Journal of Clinical Hypnosis.' Mr. Gorman believed the unconscious mind recorded all memories and that these memories could be brought out by hypnosis. Mr. Gorman hypnotized approximately 500 subjects in an attempt to elicit the earliest memories of trauma. Before the hypnosis, 10.4% acknowledged being sexually abused, and no one else reported any serious traumas. Mr. Gorman's trauma definition was never fully defined (a sign of a poor study) but included any negative memories or emotional reactions. Of the 500 subjects, 69 were able to recall intrauterine traumas, and 365 reported birth-related traumas. Mr. Gorman was able to draw out memories, and believed they could exist, when it is not physically possible for a brain to record them.

Recovered or False Memory Syndrome

The idea has been put forth that there is a Recovered or False Memory Syndrome in which a person suffers disorders and issues based upon this false memory. To the person with the false memory, the event happened to them. Because it is real to them, they must come to terms with the same emotions and thoughts that happen to a person who truly suffered through it.

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