False memory Syndrome Freud

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RICHARD WEBSTER
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From Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis (1995)
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THE OBSERVATION THAT Freud’s writings, and in particular his theory of repression, are the ultimate source of the recovered memory movement which has flourished in the United States in the last decade, has been made on a number of occasions already. The subject is a huge one and in order to avoid becoming ensnared by the present I have only touched upon it briefly in this attempt to review the psychoanalytic past. But because the recovered memory movement has assumed such an extraordinary importance in contemporary psychotherapy, no attempt to estimate the influence of Freud upon our century would be complete if it did not offer some account of this movement and of the phenomenon of ‘false memory’ which, in the view of many, is associated with it.

One of the obstacles which stands in the way of any realistic appraisal of the recovered memory movement is the difficulty most people have in imaginatively grasping the sheer scale of it, and the extraordinary speed with which it has come to dominate the mental health debate in North America and to move rapidly up mental health agendas in many other countries. As Frederick Crews has written, ‘during the past decade or so a shockwave had been sweeping across North American psychotherapy and in the process causing major repercussions in our families, courts and hospitals. A single diagnosis for miscellaneous complaints – that of unconsciously repressed sexual abuse in childhood – has grown in this brief span from virtual non-existence to epidemic frequency.’

Quite what the frequency of this diagnosis now is in the United States is impossible to say with any accuracy. But it is possible to make informed estimates. Crews himself relays the conservative estimate that a million people have been helped by their psychotherapists to recover putative ‘memories’ of child sexual abuse since 1988 alone. Tens of thousands of families have been torn apart by allegations of incest springing from these ‘recovered memories’. So massive and disruptive have the effects of this kind of therapy been that there seems little doubt that in a hundred years time, historians and sociologists will still be studying one of most extraordinary episodes in twentieth-century history, and that in all probability they will still be arguing about its causes.

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Q&A

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What is the definition of memory in connection with psychology?

The definition of memory in connection with psychology is based upon recalling information. This is done when remembering things that are learned, information that was retained such as a phone number, recalling information, and also recognition (a song lyric for example).

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