An epidemic of false memories

Photo by Flickr user corey olsen. Click for sourceA gripping edition of This American Life explores the ‘recovered memory movement’ of the 1990s where patients became convinced that they had experienced horrific, sometimes supernatural, abuse as children, led on by credulous therapists who used techniques now know to cause false memories.

The programme is a 2002 exploration of when experts give bad advice. Skip the first 8 minutes – it’s some irrelevant chattering about car mechanics – as it’s the next 35 minutes that matter.

The piece explores the now infamous recovered memory movement which led to therapists convincing patients that they had suffered dreadful, sometimes theatrically ‘satanic’ abuse, at the hand of their families, which they had supposedly ‘repressed’ into their unconscious mind.

Therapists believed they were detecting the unconscious traces of these ‘experiences’ in the dreams and emotional upset of genuine patients and encouraged their clients to elaborate on what was usually nothing but prejudice.

We now know, largely from research sparked from the work of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, that we can easily form false memories with this sort of elaboration, leading patients to believe that these experiences genuinely happened, despite having no memories of it prior to therapy.

Of course, we forget things and remember them again later, but we know now that traumatic experiences are the least likely to be forgotten. In fact, there is still no convincing evidence, or indeed, a single well-verified example, of a ‘repressed’ traumatic experience that was later ‘recovered’.

It’s probably worth noting, as the programme does, that the ‘recovered memory movement’ arrived when the full extent of child sexual abuse was just becoming known and when people were realising that victims of sexual abuse where often dismissed or not believed.

Without the evidence we have today on the remarkable malleability of memory, many therapists began to see what they thought were signs of repressed sexual abuse in their patients, even when this was denied, and began to encourage their clients ‘recover’ their memories.

The programme talks to both people who were falsely led to believe they were abused, and therapists who were caught up in the movement and helped patients ‘recover’ their baseless memories.

The piece is neither voyeuristic nor sensational and carefully weaves together the history of the social phenomenon and the personal stories of those affected.

As an aside, the reporter is Alix Spiegel who makes consistently brilliant mind, brain and mental health radio almost all of which is available online on the NPR archives and This American Life the archives.

Link to ‘An Epidemic Created By Doctors’.

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