False memories Of Abuse

Brain

Can a memory be forgotten and then remembered? Can a 'memory' be suggested and then remembered as true?

These questions lie at the heart of the memory of childhood abuse issue. Experts in the field of memory and trauma can provide some answers, but clearly more study and research are needed. What we do know is that both memory researchers and clinicians who work with trauma victims agree that both phenomena occur. However, experienced clinical psychologists state that the phenomenon of a recovered memory is rare (e.g., one experienced practitioner reported having a recovered memory arise only once in 20 years of practice). Also, although laboratory studies have shown that memory is often inaccurate and can be influenced by outside factors, memory research usually takes place either in a laboratory or some everyday setting. For ethical and humanitarian reasons, memory researchers do not subject people to a traumatic event in order to test their memory of it. Because the issue has not been directly studied, we can not know whether a memory of a traumatic event is encoded and stored differently from a memory of a nontraumatic event.

Some clinicians theorize that children understand and respond to trauma differently from adults. Some furthermore believe that childhood trauma may lead to problems in memory storage and retrieval. These clinicians believe that dissociation is a likely explanation for a memory that was forgotten and later recalled. Dissociation means that a memory is not actually lost, but is for some time unavailable for retrieval. That is, it's in memory storage, but cannot for some period of time actually be recalled. Some clinicians believe that severe forms of child sexual abuse are especially conducive to negative disturbances of memory such as dissociation or delayed memory. Many clinicians who work with trauma victims believe that this dissociation is a person's way of sheltering himself or herself from the pain of the memory. Many researchers argue, however, that there is little or no empirical support for such a theory.

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Q&A

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How easy is it to implant false memories in children?

Memory researchers who study children's memories have found that ideas and memories can be easily implanted. 1 The vast majority of social workers and police now accept these findings. They still believe that children rarely lie when they disclose abuse on their own or in response to general questions, like: "What happened during that class?" But they realize that children will commonly disclose false allegations of abuse when asked direct questions repeatedly -- questions like "Did he touch you," and later "Where did he touch you?" Many children simply give the investigators the answe…

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