False memory Syndrome information

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False memory syndrome refers to a condition in which an individual experiences a false but strongly believed memory of a traumatic experience.

Frequently, individuals who have experienced a traumatic event may forget or repress the memory. This is a defense mechanism, which Freud postulated has the function of blocking out painful memories to reduce anxiety (see also psychogenic amnesia). One function of psychotherapy is to help individuals recover repressed memories, so that the trauma can be dealt with in the open.

In 1988, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis published a book called, "The Courage to Heal", which encouraged the recovery of repressed memories of incest. They suggested that individuals who have survived incest often have a common set of symptoms, including feelings of shame, vulnerability and worthlessness. From there, some therapists have argued that, if an individual has these particular symptoms, then that individual probably suffered childhood abuse but has repressed the memory. Further, if the accused abuser denies the incident, then he (or she) is either lying or has repressed the memory himself.

When attempting to recover a memory of suspected abuse, a therapist may begin by asking the patient to form a detailed mental image of the event. As this imagery is repeated over multiple treatment sessions, it grows successively more vivid, until the entire memory is "recalled".

The problem is that memories recovered this way are notoriously unreliable. The human memory is very vulnerable to suggestion. Memories "recovered" under the influence of hypnosis or drugs are particularly unreliable. But even strong suggestion alone can influence what we remember. For instance, in one research study, Loftus and Pickerall succeeded in convincing about 25% of their adult subjects that they had been lost in a shopping mall as children - even though this had never happened.

Once the memory is "recovered", the patient may strongly believe in its validity, even to the point of ignoring or denying evidence to the contrary. Worse, when considering a rape that may have occurred several decades ago, there is usually no objective evidence available to settle the question.

There have been numerous sensational law cases based on recovered memories. One example is the famous case of Beth Rutherford, who "recovered" a memory, under her therapist's guidance, that she had been regularly raped by her father as a child, and that he twice impregnated her and forced her to abort the fetus with a coat hanger. She sued her father, who eventually had to resign his job as a clergyman...

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