The Evidence and Theory of False Memories

False Memories Amnesia: The Evidence and Theory of False Memories


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In recent years there has been a blast of research on false memories in recalling events that did not happen. Steffens & Mecklenbrauker (2007) define these memories as “a subjective experience of remembering something of that something did apparently not happen in reality” (p 12). Yet, children, adolescents and even adults continue to report that they had been sexually abused in the past or witnessed other crimes where even though they are earnest the memory is false. Whatever the case false memories are potentially related to many of the contemporary theories today such as Psychoanalysis and Disassociative Amnesia, however, even though there is an abundant amount of evidence that supports these theories there is still much research needed to maintain the hypothesis of false memories that are presented through the theoretical debate.


As an introduction to the practical relevance of false memories Steffens & Mecklenbrauker (2007) describe a woman who has been in therapy for many years because “she has trouble trusting men; has panic attacks; has a distant relationship with her father; and suffers from disturbing nightmares” (p 12). However, at some point in the therapy she “recovers” faint memories of early childhood abuse by her father. She is not sure if these are old memories or reconstructed memories of her beliefs and feelings. Yet, the self help literature for victims is quite clear. For instance, “you must believe that your client was sexually abused, even if she sometimes has doubts because no one invents abuse” (Steffens et al, p 12).

Memories like these are processed everyday in the brain. People recollect and reconstruct memories based on certain event using sights, words, sounds and taste. However, distinguishing what a person experienced and events that might have been imagined, heard of, thought of or even dreamed about could possibly have gaps in the reproduction of the event because a person’s imagination is filled with distortions.

This is why many researchers today are finding that the part of the brain that places memories determines whether a person’s memory is true or false. As humans our memories are not always completely correct or right all the time. There are many occasions where people might feel strongly about past events yet, the details of the event might be distorted or not have occurred. Therefore, what a person remembers about an event, especially if the event lacks witnesses or other corroborative physical evidence, has a significant impact on the memory.

Memories are a complicated process and the quality of a specific memory does not mean it is reliable or accurate. For example, vivid detailed memories are often inaccurate reconstructions of events. For that reason the continuity of the memory does not guarantee truth or falsity. This is because the memory is a reconstructed phenomenon that strongly influences a person’s emotions, social expectations, implied beliefs of others, or inappropriate interpretation. For instance, in a study conducted by Steffens & Mechklenbrauker, researchers found that strongly established memories often are confused with misleading post event information that was witnessed prior (2007). People were asked whether they “saw a car run over the stop signal,” yet in later questionnaire they indicated they saw a stop signal when there really had been none (p 14).

Whereas, in another study Zaragoza & Mitchell (1996) found that after people watched a movie of a burglary and questioned them on the beginning of the scene where a young man was dressed in jeans, t-shirt and gloves who entered the house, participants answered the question the young man wore gloves when actually he did not (p 295). This suggests that misguided information presented was zero in a control condition one out of three times. However, since the participants were told from the beginning that there was misguided information in the sentence, the self monitoring test (on whether the robber wore gloves) showed there was a false alarm rate 10% of the control condition along with an increase of 37% for false information presented once, and 56% three times (p 296).

Therefore, main reason for the phenomena is that there is little research on memory recollection than on perceptual recollection until the 1990s because it is tricky to obtain close control over the stimulus that is subject to a memory (Roediger, 1996). Memories of perception are created within minutes yet; the memory recollection lasts significantly longer. Therefore, the independent evidence is that the memories really occurred. However, in many of these cases there are inconsistencie such as patients reporting depression and recalling negative events that previously were seen as pleasant. Secondly, there were inconsistencies between people who witnessed verbal arguments somewhere in there past and years before.

Evidence of False Memories

Yet, there are many people have argued that false memories are only single events that have different memories such as in the case of abuse by relatives. While this may be true in some instances Steffens & Mecklenbrauker (2007) find that there still remains an argument of interevent differences taken up by researchers who have, in turn, designed experiments to test whether false memories of unpleasant events can be created (p 14). In an investigation on whether children created false memories after receiving rectal enemas, Steffens & Mecklenbrauker (2007) found that although unpleasant for some children, for others they felt helpless.

However, in a controlled event in the same study on whether children could get lost in a shopping mall, 14 of the children tested created false memories of being lost, but not of the hospital visit because the pattern was reversed for only one child (p 15). This shows that while there were differences between the actual events that influenced the probability of false memory creation the plausibility of the event is subjectively low because the false memories did not emerge. Therefore, the confidence estimate increased regarding the unlikely events.

Memory researchers also claim that the problem with traumatic experiences is not that the person has repressed or forgotten the memory but rather because the memory remains vivid in their mind and cannot be forgotten (Loftus, 2003). While the vividness can be disturbing and often causes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), many therapists believe that repression follows the Freudian tradition because while memories cannot be assimilated into existing schemas they are fearfully repressed into a person’s unconsciousness. For this reason therapy is less threatening and memories can be recovered, especially in the case of alleged sexual abuse.

For example, in the past few years there has been much publicity on people who claim to suddenly recover memories of childhood sexual abuse. People experience memories that have not been there for years yet after time the repressed memories are recovered by therapists and other trained professionals. While some of these accounts may be true in some instances, Alison, Kebell & Lewis (2006) suggest that the memory of a traumatic event varies depending in the level of stress associated with the event (p 425). Moderating stressful events such as a near car accident results in memory impairment, with 80% of incidents forgotten within 2 weeks (p 425). However, with higher levels of arousal such as in the case of an actual collision rather than a near miss of a car accident lead to detailed memories.

While there is a considerable difference between a sexual abuse case and a car accident or near car accident the person affected would have less of a reason to rehearse a near accident than the actual accident. Therefore, there is a strong positive relationship between comprehending something of a specific event and what is perceived. However, some researchers argue that trauma inhibits and enhances the memory depending on the amount of stress involved and level of arousal therefore with moderate to extreme arousal it causes interference with encoding due to the reduction in attention. Nonetheless, there are currently no laboratory studies that support this hypothesis.

For this reason, Van der Kolk and Fisler (1995) argue that in order to demonstrate the “special” nature of traumatic events, studies need to measure the characteristics and content of traumatic memories over time and in comparison to non traumatic events (p 425). While many of the experimental studies of memory are of little significance because the studies do not involve highly stressful and traumatic stimuli, Van der Kolk et al, (1995) find that “if trauma is defined as the experience of an inescapable stressful event that overwhelms a person’s existing coping mechanisms, it is questionable whether findings of memory distortions in normal subjects exposed to videotaped stresses in the laboratory can serve as meaningful guides to understanding traumatic memories” (p 506). Therefore, false memories and other kinds of events cannot be generalized memories because in contrast non traumatic memories are loosely connected chunks of sensory information that flashbacks in a fragmented and confusing form. While the sensation does include visual images, sounds, smells and bodily sensations the traumatic experience still intrudes into a persons consciousness.

Psychoanalysis &, Dissociative Amnesia Theories

However, in theory repression and disassociation with a persons ability to recall false memories such as in the case of child sexual abuse, is something that Alison, Kebbell & Lewis (2006) stated Freud considered as a “question of things which people wish to forget, therefore, they intentionally repress from the unconscious thought that is inhibited and repressed” (p 420). For this reason, Freud argued that while some experiences are so traumatic and buried in the unconscious causing fear and pain, it is uncertain as to whether the mechanism of repression automatically occurs during the traumatic event itself or whether it occurs after the experience meaning that the unconscious suppresses the memory to protect the person from further harm by consciously recollecting the event (p 420). Yet, in spite of this other researchers say that repressed memories may or may not exist. Therefore, although amnesia from traumatic events is probable so are false memories. This may explain the hypothesis that repressed memories are unavailable to the conscious mind but these same memories could later be retrieved.

Whereas, when looking into the theory of Dissociative Amnesia, researchers are finding that while the memory repression is plausible there are speculative estimates that explain that at least ten percent of all people sexually abused during childhood suffer total amnesia from the abuse. This would explain the delayed recall experiences that people have in cases similar to natural disasters, bereavement, imprisonment, or with torture and war. However, other speculated theories suggest that repressed memories originate from traumatic memories stored in the hippocampus and amygdale but not in the neocortex. While this theory seems possible considering that the right brain stores a person’s memory and does not communicate it with the left side of the brain, there still is a continual effort by the unconscious to recover the information.

In both cases, the theories above describe characteristics in which they are common however, since they are only theories there is little scientific evidence to support one theory over the other. Since repressed memories are the memory of a traumatic event that is unconsciously retained in the mind, many psychologists believe that the unconscious repression of a traumatic experience such as in the case of sexual abuse is a defense mechanism that backfires when the person remembers. However, beneath the consciousness there are countless psychological and physical problems that cause the unpleasant experience which may be forgotten but not forgiven by the victim. Therefore, the theory of unconsciously repressing memories is controversial.

Lastly, while there is an abundant amount of evidence that supports false memories there is much research that is needed to maintain the hypothesis of false memories that present theoretical debate instead of focusing on empirical phenomena (Steffens & Mecklenbrauker, 2007). So consequently while experts cannot decide with certainty whether a specific memory is recovered or false it is best to have therapists avoid suggestions and instructions to imagine (p 20). While therapists believe the client’s reports researchers are skeptical on the validity of these reports.

Therefore, the myth of repressed memories according to Loftus (1995) is “something that has gone wrong with therapy, and because that something has to do with memory, there is increasingly bitter and fractious controversy” (Steffens & Mecklenbrauker, 2007, p 21). On one hand there are people who truly believe that the mind is capable of repressing memories whereas in the other side there are skeptics as to whether repressed memories even exist. Finally, where memory theories predict, and findings prove, that memories, even if held confidently, may be false (p 21). Memories theories have always predicted, and older as well as newer findings show, that things that once appeared forgotten can possibly be recovered under other circumstances (p 21). Therefore, as William James stated (and cited by Steffens & Mecklenbrauker, 2007) “memory is the feeling of belief in a peculiar complex object. . . .the recollected past and the imaginary past may be much the same. . . there is nothing unique in the object of memory. . . .” (p 21).


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