Total recall?

January 13, 1995

John Morton argues that theories which claim to recover lost memories are far from infallible

When we, a group of academics and clinicians, were asked by the British Psychological Society to produce a report on the controversial phenomenon of "recovered memories" we soon discovered that this was no simple task. (Recovered memories are recollections of childhood events, including sexual abuse, reported by adults who had previously no recall of those events). Although our objective was to turn out a summary of the scientific evidence relating to "recovered memories", we found it impossible to ignore the highly politicised situation in which we found ourselves.

In North America, there has been a lot of publicity given to court cases where parents are being sued for damages after alleged sexual abuse remembered by offspring many years after the event during extensive, coercive therapy. There are also cases where therapists and hospitals have been sued for damages, both by accused parents and by retractors -- people who had recovered memories of child sexual abuse, accused their parents but then later claimed that the memories had been implanted in them by the therapist.

This is a climate in which psychologists testify on both sides of abuse trials, and in which one eminent researcher, Elizabeth Loftus, who has testified in a number of cases on the unlikelihood of alleged memories being genuine, is reported to have said that she felt like Schindler, saving the falsely accused. This is a strange intellectual environment for a British academic.

Just before the New Year I received a call from the medical correspondent of the Sunday Times. She had been leaked an early draft of the report and had a rather curious slant on it. I was asked "What do you think about the finding that nine out of ten psychologists believe that recovered memories are essentially accurate?" This referred to a survey we had carried out that questioned more than 1,000 chartered psychologists. I explained that the figure she used referred to those believing that recovered memories were "sometimes or usually essentially accurate" and pointed out that this meant that nine out of ten of our sample thought recovered memories could be inaccurate and was that not more interesting.

The story as it appeared was something of a surprise. Headlined "Psychologists endorse 'sex-memory' therapy", the story began: "Britain's psychologists have overwhelmingly endorsed a controversial technique of recovering 'lost' memories of childhood sex abuse." The next paragraph went on to say psychologists "believe the technique of searching for buried sexual trauma can produce accurate memories". This statement has no justification. The techniques of searching for buried sexual trauma that we referred to include techniques of hypnotic regression. Our report is quite unequivocal about the unreliability of such techniques and we are confident that few chartered psychologists, all of whom have gone through extensive training, would have any other view of the matter. In fact only ten per cent of our sample reported ever using hypnotic regression for any reason, and, like other well-trained hypnotists, seemed very much aware of the dangers.

The psychologists surveyed by us, faced with the question "To what extent do you think that recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse from total amnesia can be taken as essentially accurate?" and given the options of replying never/sometimes/usually/always, would base their answers on their own experience. Clinicians who are at pains to avoid leading their clients are likely to believe what their clients tell them, unless there is evidence to the contrary. In our survey, nearly a third of the sample reported a client having recovered memories of child sexual abuse before therapy. In addition, a third reported at least one case of memory recovery for some other kind of early trauma. Their attitude to recovered memories, then, could not reasonably be seen as the endorsement of any technique.

The Sunday Times also reported that I was "worried that psychologists may be planting false memories". Here I would want to draw a distinction between psychologists and therapists. The difference between a psychologist as a specially trained and regulated person and therapist as a generic term is quite important to the public. The BPS, which commissioned the report, is responsible for chartered psychologists, and has a disciplinary procedure to handle any accusation of malpractice, with a majority of non-psychologists on the committee which makes the final decisions. At the limit, a chartered psychologist could be struck off the register and would not have the right to use the term. This has happened with individuals who have had improper relations with clients.

Someone who simply describes themselves as a therapist, or even as a psychotherapist, may or may not belong to a body with regulatory power. There are a large number of psychotherapy training organisations affiliated to the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy and the British Confederation of Psychotherapists. There are other training organisations that are unaffiliated, and there is no control at all over the education of their students or the practices they encourage. If there are such organisations that train their students to believe certain symptoms are always caused by childhood sexual abuse, and to believe that memories of that early abuse, even from the first year of life, can be recovered accurately through hypnotic regression under strong guidance from the therapists, then we would see this as misleading and dangerous and would condemn it.

The British False Memory Society reports that there are 550 families on its books who have been falsely accused of sexual abuse after the recovery of memories in therapy. We examined the BFMS files a year ago, and at that time about half the cases were little more than notes on telephone inquiries. We are not aware that the BFMS has conducted any investigations into the probity of the 550 people on the list, and a spokesman for the BFMS has sensibly commented elsewhere that membership of the society is no guarantee of innocence. The work done by the false memory societies in drawing to our attention the traumatic consequences of false accusations is appreciated, but while I am convinced that in the UK there are some parents who have suffered greatly, we have no good idea as to the extent of the problem either of false accusations or of the involvement of clinical psychologists or other therapists, accredited or not, in such matters. The present climate of debate is such that any accusation of early abuse on the part of an adult could be termed a false memory. I have been sent papers by defence solicitors concerning prosecution for sexual abuse for comment on the "false memory" component of the accusations where it was clear in the papers themselves that the accusing daughter had never forgotten the abuse. In other cases parents have accused a psychologist of having planted a false memory, where the case notes show the client in question came into therapy with the memory already present.

An anxious Canadian correspondent, an eminent academic research worker, said there was no doubt that our report will have considerable impact in the United States and Canada as well as in the UK. He was afraid that it might "inadvertently propel the continued use of risky memory recovery work in psychotherapy". He added: "It will certainly be seen by promoters of memory recovery therapy, who have helped thousands of people recover previously unknown histories of extensive and extreme abuse, as a British Psychological Society validation of their beliefs and practices. Such beliefs have led a substantial minority of practitioners in the US inadvertently but greatly and irrevocably to damage the lives of many clients, leading to the dissolution of families and sparking hundreds (likely thousands) of law suits. This is a tragedy that psychology is visiting on society". We have no reason to disbelieve him with respect to the situation in North America, and can say only that our judgement is that the report will not be interpreted in that way in this country.

On the science side, while some of the science is clear; much of it is equivocal. On the one hand it is clear an adult cannot have memories for the content of a single event which took place in their first year. It is also clear that hypnosis makes recollection of past events more liable to error and that the erroneous recall may be confident. However, on such basic questions as the accuracy of ordinary memory for events, one cannot give a sensible, simple answer.

It is said that the UK follows the US in social trends with a 15-year lag. We are determined that with respect to the relations between clinical and experimental psychologists and with respect to the prevalence of particular memory recovery techniques we will not follow the US. We are not complacent, but we feel there is no need for panic.

John Morton, professor at University College London, is chairman of the British Psychological Society working party on recovered memory. The group's report was published yesterday.

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