Banking on memories

March 17, 2000

There is no evidence that patients are being prompted to invent memories, says Bernice Andrews

False memory syndrome hit the headlines in the early 1990s. Though it has never enjoyed official medical or scientific status, it has captured the public imagination. There have been several stories of families being destroyed after children have "remembered" being sexually abused.

The condition was originally described by the US False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which was set up to protect the interests of parents whose children had accused them of abuse. It was taken up by organisations worldwide, including Britain's False Memory Society. The false memory societies define the syndrome as a condition where someone's identity is centred on a memory of a traumatic experience that is objectively false but in which that person strongly believes.

They see the chief villains in this scenario as therapists and social workers. Through self-help books and techniques, therapists apparently convince vulnerable patients that their emotional problems are the result of repressed sexual abuse in childhood. In other words, they claim that the therapy causes a new condition centred on false beliefs.

If false memory syndrome exists, there should be compelling evidence. The evidence we do have centres on parents' insistence that their children's recovered memories are false and that thousands of people have been damaged by inappropriate therapy.

Yet a recently published survey of British False Memory Society members showed that their numbers were relatively small (282 responded). Some even reported that there was some truth in their children's allegations of abuse.

Research cited in support of false memory syndrome comes from laboratory experiments that show it is possible to implant false memories. But the more implausible the false event, the more difficult it is to implant. It is almost impossible to convince people they have endured an uncommon and unpleasant childhood experience such as being given an enema.

Our research, published this week, casts further doubt on the existence of false memory syndrome. We interviewed 100 qualified psychologists who had between them seen and made case notes on 236 clients with "recovered" memories.

The memories did not appear to be solely the result of an inappropriate focus on child sexual abuse. About a third involved other types of trauma. Therapy could often not be blamed, since about a third of clients had recovered memories before entering therapy. The claim that these recollections were invariably false was not supported - more than 40 per cent had been independently corroborated.

Our research found that the most common triggers to memory recovery were situations involving the clients' own children, and recent dangerous or frightening events. Memories were less commonly triggered by self-help books or by therapists using memory-recovery techniques.

In fact, the therapists we interviewed rarely used these techniques and were often as surprised as the clients when traumatic memories spontaneously emerged. One reason for the therapists' concern is the dramatic way in which the memories often appeared - in fragments, accompanied by fear and experienced as a reliving of the original event in the present. Traumatic memories of patients diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following a car or train crash emerge in a similar way.

Our research joins a growing body of evidence that suggests that many recovered memories cannot be explained by false memory syndrome, which is just a theory that has as yet received little objective support.

Bernice Andrews is senior lecturer in psychology, Royal Holloway, University of London.

* Does false memory syndrome exist?

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