The Memory Wars
The memory wars can never be resolved
Over the past 20 years, research body evidence has experienced tremendous growth. This has made psychologists be even more sceptical about the existence of repressed memories. Studies indicate that practitioners and researchers have different beliefs on repressed memories. They differ is on whether the memories exist and whether they can be recalled accurately. Studies show that traumatic events can be unconsciously repressed and hence the need to visit the therapist to recover the memories for healing in accordance with the recovered memories. However, various factors emerge questioning the reliability of the recovered memories. Studies show that it is possible to implant a new false memory in an adult mind meaning that recovered memories aren’t fully accurate. Repeated recall tests increase false memories. Therapists have the power to influence patients to recover false memories especially when the subjects have prior knowledge of the target event. Research shows that repeated false information is more likely to be produced in memory recovery. Additionally, the available methods of determining whether memories are true or false scientifically question of their validity. Currently, memory wars are yet to be resolved. However, the improvement of research methods shows that the memory war will be resolved.
The controversy about the repressed memories is traced back in the 1990s. Before 1992, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists believed that adult survivors of CSA had experienced a period of amnesia for the abuse memories. The literature in this period was dedicated to the survivors’ healing needs (Patihis et al., 2013, p3). In 1993, some cognitive psychologists started arguing that the recovered memories could have a likelihood of being false memories. The psychologist associated false memories with obsessive actions of therapists who implant false memories in the client’s mind. The therapist influences suggestible clients by putting their assertions in their minds (Madill & Holch, 2004, pp302). The shift from repressed memories to false memories occurred when cognitive psychologists, Professor Freyd accuse her father of sexual abuse when she was a child and recovered the memories as an adult. The accusation led to the establishment of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) whose purpose was to advocate for individuals facing the sexual offending accusation.
The foundation operated with the help of renowned cognitive psychologists such as Elizabeth Loftus. The British False Memory Society was established in 1994. The two organizations operated for years collecting case studies under which people have been accused and convicted wrongly based on evidence from complainants (Geraerts, 2008, pp169). The establishment of the foundations challenged the concept of recovery memory changing the academic literature focus. Before 1991, a literature was more focused on sexual abuse related to victims and healing their needs. However, the emergence of false memories shifted the focus to CSA false memories and possibility of wrong convictions (Bernstein & Loftus, 2009, pp371). The different beliefs on recovered memories and false memories led to ‘memory wars’.
The different research methods used by proponents of recovered and false memories are participating in the divided views. The research is conducted ethically instead of conducted experiments of traumatic memories in a controlled manner. The researchers rely on phenomenological studies that explores individual experiences, an experimental investigation on the process of ordinary formation, and co-relational studies whose results are then generalised explaining traumatic processes (Madill & Holch, 2004, pp310). The research methods have limitations that question the reliability of the findings. For instance, the phenomenological studies are considered subjective without scientific objectivity. The correlational studies are unable to establish a causal relationship between variables under investigation. Similarly, the laboratory studies are limited in terms of ecological validity because they are unable to control the conditions that emulate CSA protracted trauma experimentally and also the time frame between memories recall and incident. While some researchers and practitioners believe in recovered memories, others believe in false memories (Madill & Holch, 2004, pp305). One thing that is clear though is that the research methods used by both parties lead to contrasting results associated with the opinion division.
Sigmund Freud was the first to examine repressed memory in the late 1890s. The examination involved studying the unconscious. In the study, sexual abuse victims were studied and the conclusion was that when individuals experience trauma, a brain mechanism represses it from awareness (Patihis et al., 2013, p3). The mechanism seeks to protect people from haunting experiences. The recovery memory movement encouraged people suffering from mental and physical challenges to seek therapy since the suffering could be a result of repressed memories. The idea for the therapy was to discover the repressed memories and help in healing them. Studies show that traumatic events can lead to memory loss and even repression of the traumatic event (Madill & Holch, 2004, pp305). Research has proven that majority of people who have experienced sexual abuse have suffered memory loss.
The movement argues that a repeated traumatic event can be repressed unconsciously. However, studies show that repeated information improves memory rather than leading to memory loss. This is one of the flaws of the movement. By engaging patients in therapy, therapists ask questions and offer suggestions that have a great impact on patient’s memories. For instance, in the case of the Jean Piaget, he was convinced that he was kidnapped at the age of 2 years and even gave an account of the even (Patihis et al., 2013, p4). Both the parent and the babysitter confirmed the story. However, years later the baby sitter admitted to making up the story. It is the suggestion of the baby sitter that made Piaget create his memory of the event. This indicates that while sometimes people can recover their memories of events that occurred in childhood, it is clear that the false memories can be triggered by other people (Madill & Holch, 2004, pp307). Therapists have the ability to influence patients while taking then through therapy leading to false recovered memories.
FMSF proposed various arguments in favour of false memories. The proponents argue that a recovered memory has a potential of being false. They however argue that memories that are related to abuse are associated with amnesia and that evidence is partly documented in legal cases. When a therapist engages a client in an improper way, the likelihood of false memory occurring is very high (Patihis et al., 2013, p2). FMSF presented various cases that prove that therapist has participated in influencing clients to give false memories. However, studies show that for clinicians, memory recovery techniques are uncommon meaning that people who report memory recovered experience the recovery outside the therapy sessions. In fact many people start therapy after recovering memories (Wright et al., 2006, pp353). The proponents argue that it is easy to implant a false memory of a traumatic event in a person’s mind. Since such as experiment is unethical, researchers have engaged other alternative experiments and discovered that it is likely to implant a false memory on an adult’s mind.
The proponents assume that suspected perpetrators are invulnerable to develop false memories with exception to cases where they confess falsely. Additionally to the argument between false and recovered memory is on the memory nature. Proponents of false memory raise the issue of whether there is a separate system for traumatic memories. While proponents of recovered memory argue that there are various traumatic memories processes, proponents of false memory argue that traumatic processes take place just as the normal processes of remembering and forgetting (Madill & Holch, 2004, 309). While the assumptions have limitations, the false memory position is supported by the potential ability to implant a new false memory in adult mind, use of recognition test to increase false memory, and use subjecting people to social influences in memory recovery resulting to false statements.
The possibility of the creation of false memories led to studies on whether it is possible to implant a false memory in the adult minds. In various studies, researchers presented people with a list of words that are related to one word that is not presented. After studying the list, the target people complete the recognition test with a common finding with confidence. The effects have been simulated in a shown recall paradigm. The studies show that increased successive recall tests increased false memory (Wright et al., 2006, pp543). With such findings, it is clear that when people are subjected to such recall tests then they will eventually lead to false memories. In such a case when the memories are used as evidence then a wrong conviction will definitely occur.
Proponents of false memory argue that it is possible to implant a false memory in human mind. The study by Loftus and Pickrell shows that it is possible to implant a new memory on human mind (Geraerts, 2008, pp170). For instance, in an experiment, researchers implanted a false memory about an accident that happened in a wedding reception which led to punching bowl over the bride. During the first interview, memory on the true event was accurate. There were no participants that provide false information about the event. However, by the third interview, 25.5% interviewees gave a false recollection of the event (Bernstein & Loftus, 2009, pp372). By the third interview, the interviewers had already managed to implant a false memory in the minds of the subjects. It is easy to implant a false memory into adult mind especially when the subject has prior knowledge of the false event.
Fuzzy trace theory, has a useful conceptual framework that helps in evaluating false memory. According to the theory, the likelihood of producing false memory increases when subjects have prior knowledge of the target event. From the theory, it is clear that when subjects are exposed to therapy or questioning concerning a certain event of which they have prior information, then it is possible to implant a false memory in their mind (Brainerd, C. & Reyna, 2002, pp166). Even when the subjects lack prior information, research still shows that it is possible to create a false memory in the mind. For instance, Fuzzy Trace theory explains that researchers have used the repeated presentation of target data in memory researches. According to the theory, repeated information increases false memory. This means that by repeating information, people can implant false memories in adult minds (Brainerd, C. & Reyna, 2002, pp166). This means that even though sometimes the recovered memory can be accurate sometimes they are not since they can be as a result of manipulation.
Guided imagery and visualisation techniques are effectively used in relieving post-traumatic symptoms brought by stress disorder in sexual abuse victims. Some practitioners also use the techniques in therapies of repressed memory. The use of these techniques is however challenging in memory recovery (Geraerts, 2008, pp172). Memory recovery under such methods is based on attributional processes instead of retrieval leading to false memories. The techniques involve subjecting the subjects to social influences which question the reliability of the recovered memories. Researchers are still looking for methods to differentiate between recovered memories that are true and false (Wright et al., 2006, pp354). Currently there is no reliable method. However, forensic psychologists, cognitive scientists, and psychotherapists have tried and tested several methods including statement validity analysis and Rorschach projective imagery test.
The projective imagery test of Rorschach involves presenting stimulus cards from which subjects report what they see. The method assumes that the descriptions from the test arise from memory traces integration in addition to the stimulus image nature. This method can be abused stimulus cards that relate to the target event or experience influencing the recovery of memories (Patihis et al., 2013, p4). In such a case the recovered memories will be false. While the method is used in clinical psychology, there is a debate on whether the scientific standards of acceptance for admissibility. Statement validity analysis is based on arguments that true statements have additional characteristics compared to those based on imagination. The method is used in various courts in determining the credibility of sexual abuse victims (Wright et al., 2006, pp354). The additional characteristics include logical structure, amount of provided details, and presence of uncommon details. Although the method is useful in police investigations, the method isn’t accurate enough to for expert scientific evidence. Some people can be smart enough to incorporate the characteristics in false statements (Patihis et al., 2013, p2). Additionally, people with false memories tend to construct their statements in the same way people with true memories do. It is therefore challenging to distinguish between true and false memories.
In conclusion, it is clear that ‘memory war’ is yet to be over. While there is evidence that traumatic events can be unconsciously repressed and hence the need to visit the therapist to recover the memories for healing in accordance with the recovered memories, there are various factors that are support of false memory. The two methods of distinguishing between false and true memories leave room for improvement. The two methods of determining whether a memory is true or false are not fully reliable on giving accurate data. Researchers can’t accurately tell whether the memories recovered are true or false. Studies show that it is likely to implant a new false memory in an adult mind. This means that recovered memories aren’t fully accurate and can yield false results. Studies show that repeated recall tests increase false memories meaning that when people are subjected to the tests, then the will recover false memories. Therapists have the power to influence patients to recover false memories especially when the subjects have prior knowledge of the target event. Research shows that repeated information is more likely to be produced and when the information is false then the recovered memories will also be false. This shows that there still exist differences of opinions on recovered and false memories. It is therefore important that more research is conducted to solve the ‘memory war’.
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Brainerd, C. & Reyna, V. (2002). Fuzzy-Trace Theory and False Memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science. American Psychological Society, vol.11 No.5, pp. 164-169.
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Madill, A. & Holch, P. (2004). A range of memory possibilities: the challenge of the false memory debate for clinicians and researchers. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, vol. 11, pp.299-310.
Patihis, L., Ho, L. & Tingen, I. (2013). Are the “Memory Wars” Over? A Scientist- Practitioner Gap in Beliefs about Repressed Memory. Psychological Science.
Wright, D., Ost, J. & French, C. (2006) Recovered and false memories. The Psychologist, vol.19, no.6, pp. 352-355.