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False Memory Syndrome

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Calling Memory Into Question:

A look at False Memory Syndrome

Memory is the mental faculty of retaining and recalling past experiences. A

repressed memory is one that is retained in the subconscious mind, where one is not aware of it but where it can still affect both conscious thoughts and behavior.

When memory is distorted or confabulated, the result can be what has been called the False Memory Syndrome: a condition in which a person's identity and interpersonal relationships are entered around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes (note that the syndrome is not characterized by false memories as such). We all have memories that are inaccurate. Rather, the syndrome may be diagnosed when the memory is so deeply ingrained that it orients the individual's entire personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts

of other adaptive behaviors. The analogy to personality disorder is intentional. False memory syndrome is especially destructive because the person assiduously avoids confrontation with any evidence that might challenge the memory. Thus it takes on a life of its own, encapsulated and resistant to correction. The person may become so focused on the memory that he or she may be effectively distracted from coping with real problems in his or her life (Loftus 1980, 1997).

There are many models which try to explain how memory works. Nevertheless,

we do not know exactly how memory works. One of the most questionable models of memory is the one which assumes that every experience a person has had is 'recorded' in memory and that some of these memories are of traumatic events too terrible to want to remember. These terrible memories are locked away in the subconscious mind, i.e. repressed, only to be remembered in adulthood when some triggering event opens the door to the unconscious. Both before and after the repressed memory is remembered, it causes physical and mental disorders in a person.

Some people have made an effort to explain their pain, even cancer, as coming from repressed memories of incest in the body. Scientists have studied related phenomenon such as people whose hands bleed in certain religious settings. Presumably such people, called stigmatics, "are not revealing unconscious memories of being crucified as young children, but rather are demonstrating a fascinating psychogenic anomaly that springs from their conscious fixation on the suffering of Christ. Similarly, it is possible that conscious fixation on the idea that one was sexually abused might increase the frequency of some physical symptoms, regardless of whether or not the abuse really occurred."(Lindsay & Read, 1994)

This view of memory has two elements: (1) the accuracy element and (2) the

causal element. The reason this model is questionable is not because people don't have unpleasant or painful experiences they would rather forget, nor is it claiming that children often experience both wonderful and brutal things for which they have no conceptual or linguistic framework and hence are incapable of understanding them, much less relating it to others. It is questionable because this model maintains that because (a) one is having

problems of functioning as a healthy human being and (b) one remembers being

abused as a child that therefore (A) one was abused as a child and (B) the childhood abuse is the cause of one's adulthood problems.

There is no evidence that supports the claim that we remember everything

that we experience. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to support the claim that it is impossible for us to even attend to all the perceptual elements of any given experience, much less to recall them all. There is no evidence to support the claim that all memories of experiences happened as they remembered to have happened or that they have even happened at all. And there is no evidence to support the claim that subjective certainty about the accuracy of memories or the vividness of memories significantly correlates with accuracy. Finally, the claim of a causal connection between abuse and health or behavior does not warrant concluding that ill health, mental or physical, is a 'sign' of having been abused (Loftus 1980).

This model is the basis for a number of pseudoscientific works on child abuse by self-proclaimed experts such as Ellen Bass, E. Sue Blum, Laura Davis, Beverly Engel, Beverly Holman, Wendy Maltz and Mary Jane Williams (Travis 1993). Through communal reinforcement many empirically unsupported notions, including the claim that about half of all women have been sexually abused, get treated as a 'fact' by many people. Psychologist Carol Travis writes: "In what can only be called an incestuous arrangement, the authors of these books all rely on one another's work as supporting evidence for their own; they all recommend one another's books to their readers. If one of them comes up with a concocted statistic--such as 'more than half of all women survivors of childhood sexual trauma' -- the numbers are traded like baseball cards, reprinted in every book and eventually enshrined as fact. Thus the cycle of misinformation, faulty statistics and unvalidated assertions maintains itself." (Travis, 1993)

The only difference between this group of experts and say, a group of physicists is that the child abuse experts have achieved their status as authorities not by scientific training but by either (a) experience [they were victims themselves or they have treated victims of abuse in their capacity as social workers] or (b) they wrote a book on child abuse. The child abuse experts are not trained in scientific research which is not a

comment on their ability to write or to do therapy, but which does seem to be one reason for their scientific illiteracy. (Travis, 1993)

Here are a few of the unproved, unscientifically researched notions that are being bandied around by these child abuse experts: One, if you doubt that you were abused as a child or think that it might be your imagination, this is a sign of 'post-incest syndrome'. Two, if you can not remember any specific instances of being abused, but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, 'it probably did'. Three, when a person can not remember his or her childhood or have very fuzzy memories, 'incest must always be considered as a possibility'. And four, 'If you have



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