traumatic memory

False memory syndrome


False memory syndrome (FMS) is a term coined in 1992 by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) to describe their theory that some adults who belatedly remember instances of sexual abuse from their childhood may be mistaken about the accuracy of their memory; from this, the Foundation hypothesizes that the alleged false memories may have been the result of recovered memory therapy, another term coined by the FMSF in the early 1990s. The FMSF is an organization that advocates on behalf of individuals who claim they have been falsely accused of perpetrating child sexual abuse. Some of the influential figures in the genesis of this theory are forensic psychologist Ralph Underwager, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus and sociologist Richard Ofshe.

Charles Whitfield, MD, in his 1995 book Memory and Abuse, states that all critics he had found of the studies validating delayed memories are members of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation advisory board and states that FMS is rare. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines FMS as "The belief that one remembers events, especially traumatic ones, that have not actually occurred", also stating it is not used scientifically.


Stephanie Dallam has claimed that "...[FMS] is a controversial theoretical construct based entirely on the reports of parents who claim to be falsely accused of incestuous abuse... The current empirical evidence suggests that the existence of such a syndrome must be rejected. False memory advocates have failed to adequately define or document the existence of a specific syndrome, and a review of the relevant literature demonstrates that the construct is based on a series of faulty assumptions, many of which have been disproven. Likewise, there no credible data showing that the vague symptoms they ascribe to this purported syndrome are widespread or constitute a crisis or epidemic."

FMS advocates claim to be concerned that an individual's purportedly repressed memories may not be historically accurate. FMS advocates strongly believe these memories are often confabulations that, if taken as fact, may result in wrongful accusation and bring unjust emotional and financial distress unto the accused. Other researchers believe that

Research has shown that traumatized individuals respond by using a variety of psychological mechanisms. One of the most common means of dealing with the pain is to try and push it out of awareness. Some label the phenomenon of the process whereby the mind avoids conscious acknowledgment of traumatic experiences as dissociative amnesia. Others use terms such as repression , dissociative state , traumatic amnesia, psychogenic shock, or motivated forgetting . Semantics aside, there is near-universal scientific acceptance of the fact that the mind is capable of avoiding conscious recall of traumatic experiences.

Brown, Scheflin and Hammond reviewed 43 studies relevant to the subject of traumatic memory and found that every study that examined the question of dissociative amnesia in traumatized populations demonstrated that a substantial minority partially or completely forget the traumatic event experienced, and later recover memories of the event.
… there are over 100 years of reports and descriptions of recovered memory in the literature, including instances from times of war, torture, bereavement, natural disasters, and concentration camp imprisonment. (HOROWITZ) Many corroborated cases have been documented in instances of recovered memory of sexual abuse,…

Recovered memory therapy

"Recovered memory therapy" (RMT) is a term coined by affiliates of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in the early 1990s, to refer what they described as a range of psychotherapy methods based on recalling memories of abuse that had previously been forgotten by the patient. The term is not listed in DSM-IV or used by any mainstream formal psychotherapy modality.

FMS advocates harbor strong skepticism towards any therapist who they believe encourages a client to identify repressed memories. They argue that self-help books, such as The Courage to Heal and recovered memory therapists can influence adults to develop false memories. According to this theory, psychologists and psychiatrists may accidentally implant these false memories.

Others believe that there is insufficient evidence that false memories can be created in therapy. In some cases, patients who have recovered previously forgotten memories later decide that those memories are in fact false, and retract their claims. This does not provide conclusive information about whether or not the memories were actually true or actually false; and, the patients may still suffer a kind of post traumatic stress. The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation has, in a letter to the editor, stated the authors of the article "Brain Stains" provided a "onesided, misleading and unscientific account" of the dissociative disorders.

Alien abduction and past life therapy

Psychologist Stephen Jay Lynn conducted a simulated hypnosis experiment in 1994, asking patients to imagine they had seen bright lights and experienced lost time. 91% of subjects who had been primed with questions about UFOs stated that they had interacted with aliens.

Harvard University professor Richard McNally has found that many Americans who believe they have been abducted by aliens share personality traits such as New Age beliefs and episodes of sleep paralysis accompanied by hypnopompic hallucinations. In laboratory tests, these individuals exhibited measurable stress symptoms such as elevated heart-rate and sweating responses, similar to those of Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The experiment led McNally to conclude, "Emotion does not prove the veracity of the interpretation." Psychiatrist, John Mack, M.D., founder of the department of psychiatry at The Cambridge Hospital in 1969, and member of the faculty Harvard Medical School, disagrees with McNally's conclusions, stating that, according to Psychology Today, diagnosis of sleep paralysis along with "Sci-Fi Channel" beliefs is not sufficient explanation for phenomena such as "alien sightings by school children in Zimbabwe who are wide-awake."

Court cases

Sexual abuse cases

The question of the accuracy and dependability of a repressed memory that was later recalled has contributed to some investigations and court cases, including cases of alleged sexual abuse or child sexual abuse. Some such recollections have been supported by enough corroborating evidence to enable successful prosecution, while others have been deemed confabulations or "false memories" that were not legally admissible.

The defense in sexual abuse cases may offer their own “expert” “testimony to counter the plaintiff's scientific evidence that the mind can avoid or repress traumatic information and then recall it years later.” Murphy believes that there is "overwhelming evidence that the mind is capable of repressing traumatic memories of child sexual abuse. Whitfield states that the “false memory” defense is “seemingly sophisticated, but mostly contrived and often erroneous.” He states that this defense has been created by “accused, convicted and self-confessed child molesters and their advocates” to try to “negate their abusive, criminal behavior.” Brown states that when pro-false memory expert witnesses and attorneys state there is no causal connection between CSA and adult psychopathology, that CSA doesn't cause specific trauma-related problems like borderline and dissociative identity disorder, that other variables than CSA can explain the variance of adult psychopathology and that the long-term effects of CSA are non-specific and general, that this testimony is inaccurate and has the potential of misleading juries.

Malpractice cases

During the late 1990s, there were multiple lawsuits in the United States in which psychiatrists and psychologists were successfully sued, or settled out of court, on the charge of propagating iatrogenic memories of childhood sexual abuse, incest and satanic ritual abuse. Bennet Braun, an Illinois psychiatrist, is arguably the most well-known among psychotherapeutic professionals who were found negligent.

Some of these suits were brought by individuals who later deemed their recovered memories of incest and/or satanic ritual abuse to be false. (for instance, ). The False Memory Syndrome Foundation uses the term "retractors" to describe these individuals and some, such as Gail Macdonald, have shared their stories publicly. Some researchers believe that while some retractions may be accurate, the number of reported retractions is small when compared to the large number of actual child sexual abuse cases. Some have suggested that a child may retract their story of abuse due to guilt and a feeling of obligation to protect their family. It is also argued that people who retract previous allegations of incest made against family members may be reacting to the familial stress brought on by their allegations.

See also


Further reading

  • Ceci, S.J., Huffman, M.L.C., Smith, E., & Loftus, E.F. (1994) Repeatedly thinking about non-events. Consciousness and Cognition, 3, 388-407.
  • Freyd, Jennifer J. (1996). Betrayal Trauma - The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Hyman, I.E., Husband, T.H., & Billings, F.J. (1995) False memories of childhood experiences. Applied Cognitive Psychology 9, 181-197.
  • Knopp, Fay Honey (1996). A Primer on the Complexities of Traumatic Memory of Childhood Sexual Abuse - A Psychobiological Approach. Brandon, VT: Safer Society Press.
  • Loftus, E. & Ketcham, K. The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse, St. Martin's Griffin, 1996. ISBN 978-0312141233.
  • Ofshe, Richard and Watters, Ethan Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994
  • Pendergrast, Mark. Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives, Upper Access,Inc, 1995. ISBN 0-942679-16-4.
  • *
  • Whitfield M.D., Charles L. (1995). Memory and Abuse - Remembering and Healing the Effects of Trauma. Health Communications, Inc.

External links

Search another word or see traumatic memoryon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature