False Recovered Memories and the Myth of Repression

False Recovered Memories and the Myth of Repression

      It is known, with conclusive evidence, that it is possible to create false memories. In fact some psychology teachers have found ethical and fun ways to demonstrate this in class.  It is repeatedly demonstrable, and has been replicated by a diverse array of researchers.  It is relevant to both psychotherapy and the criminal justice system. There have been some great experiments done that help clarify what can happen, and what changes that needed to be made in various areas – for example in eyewitness testimony.  More relevant to this website, it is also important to any psychotherapy that seeks to uncover traumatic memories, and the take home conclusion from memory research is that psychotherapies should be very cautious if they are to insist on recovering what the therapist and participant believe to be repressed traumas

Whether it is possible to repress traumatic memories completely, and retrieve them pristinely is quite contested in the general population, but not so much amongst modern scientists.  On the one hand we have had anecdotes in popular books and on television claiming trauma repression happens, some saying that they recovered memories that were then verified with parents, so it may be possible, but actual genuine cases seem to be rarer than once thought. However, some scientists, especially experimental psychologists, insist they have never even seen one convincing case of repressed memory. There is good peer-reviewed experimental data showing that memories are reconstructed and confabulated constantly; and that the essence and central details of traumatic memories are more likely to be remembered than other memories.  Where the scientific experimental data is showing one thing and popularized anecdotes in the self-improvement section of a commercial bookstore are saying another, peer-reviewed journals are usually the more reliable source. Even if traumatic memories are sometimes forgotten, there is some debate as to the benefit and the actual healing power of reliving trauma.

Further examination of repressed memory therapy led to data that showed many of the repressed memories were often created in the therapist’s office (and primed in books). In some cases the abuse was impossible for some reason, for example they checked to see if they could find verifying evidence, and it became obvious it was impossible.  The main evidence came from the patients themselves, many of which retracted their stories after they realized what had happened in therapy. ( For retractor stories see: http://www.fmsfonline.org/retract1.html ).

It is important to raise the question, maybe many of the memories people recover in primal therapy are confabulated to varying degrees, depending on the clarity of the real memory.  Research on memory has shown that memory is not like a photo, it is more of a reconstruction and open to reinterpretation and mistakes. This website’s The Scientific Revolution Claimwhich is a relatively detailed and lengthy confutation of primal therapy theory, includes a brief summary, citations and references of research in this area, here is an excerpt:

The accuracy of memory recall of children has been called into question, which is contrary to Janov’s idea that memories are stored and recalled pristinely (Loftus, 1993, 2003; McNally, 2005).  Memory recall by adults of events in early infancy is not supported by the evidence, [there is scant evidence for memories before age 3]; yet Janov claims his followers re-experience womb-life, birth and very early vivid memories (Janov, 1991, p.144; Eacott & Crawley, 1998).Studies in clinical psychology show that angry catharsis often just makes people angrier, which contradicts Janov’s hydraulic model of emotion expression (Lohr, Olatunji, Baumeister, & Bushman, 2007; Bushman, 2002; Chaffin, Wherry, & Dykman, 1997).  Studies in the field of medicine have shown a negative health effect of anger expression which contradicts Janov’s prediction that it would improve health.  Anger’s adverse effects on arteries was investigated, amongst many others, by Ironson et al., (1993); heart disease by Kawachi et al. (1996), and stroke by Everson et al. (1999).

In addition, the page Evidence from Clinical Psychology also touches on this area of research.

In particular, check out the work of Elizabeth Loftus. The creation of false memories and the malleability of memory are well documented phenomena, it is not just opinion.  The link below takes to a page with links to articles on the subject:


This recommended link does a detailed job of explaining the problems with repressed trauma type therapies: http://skepdic.com/repress.html . 

This is a must read, it also addresses the lack of scientific validity of ‘repression,’ and much more.  It is advisable to read the whole article, even if one thinks some parts of it is not directly relevant to primal therapy.

Recommended important article by Elizabeth Loftus: http://www.csicop.org/si/9503/memory.html 

Another excellent explanation of repressed memory from the site mentioned above: http://skepdic.com/repressedmemory.html

I highly recommend Elizabeth Loftus’ website with more informative links on it: http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/

Here is an excerpt of one of these articles available on Elizabeth Loftus’ website:                

“Planting False Memories

Could one create an entire memory for an event that never happened? My first attempt … used a procedure whereby participants were given short narrative descriptions of childhood events and encouraged to try to remember those events. While participants believed that all of the descriptions were true and had been provided by family members, one was actually a pseudo-event that had not occurred. In this study, approximately 25% of participants were led to believe, wholly or partially, that at age 5 or 6 they had been lost in a shopping mall for an extended time, were highly upset, and were ultimately rescued by an elderly person and reunited with their family (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995). Many added embellishing details to their accounts.

The method of using family members to help plant false memories has been dubbed the familial informant false narrative procedure (Lindsay, Hagen, Read, Wade, & Garry, in press), but it is probably easier to call it simply the lost-in-the-mall technique. Many investigators have used the lost-in-the-mall technique to plant false memories of events that would have been far more unusual, bizarre, painful, or even traumatic had they actually occurred. Participants have been led to believe that they had been hospitalized overnight or that they had an accident at a family wedding (Hyman, Husband, & Billings, 1995; Hyman & Pentland, 1996). They have been convinced that they had nearly drowned and had to be rescued by a lifeguard (Heaps & Nash, 2001). They have fallen sway to the suggestion that they were once the victims of a vicious animal attack (Porter, Yuille, & Lehman, 1999).

Most studies find that a significant minority of participants will develop partial or complete false memories. In a set of studies reviewed by Lindsay et al. (in press), the average false memory rate was 31%, but in individual studies, of course, the figures can vary. Sometimes people have been resistant to suggestions, as they were when investigators tried to plant false memories of having received a rectal enema (Pezdek, Finger, & Hodge, 1997). Conversely, sometimes false memories have been planted in the minds of more than 50% of exposed individuals, as they were when investigators tried to plant false memories of having gone up in a hot-air balloon ride (Wade, Garry, Read, & Lindsay, 2002).

Particularly striking are the complete false memories, or what might be termed rich false memories, which are experiences about which a person can feel confident, provide details, even express emotion about made-up events that never happened (Loftus & Bernstein, in press).”  

 E. Loftus from <http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/>

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