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A Cherry Picker's Guide To Choosing Evidence For Traumatic Repression Or False Memory Syndrome
By David Glück
Posted on: 1/19/2005
In a companion piece to his girlfriend's "Questioning the Validity of False Memory Syndrome," David Glück questions the apparent eagerness of many skeptics to jump on the False Memory Syndrome bandwagon.
For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.I’m not sure when it first came up, but I can tell you that I had a running debate with my girlfriend over what is now called False Memory Syndrome. I believed there was evidence to support a syndrome based on articles I had read in Skeptical Inquirer and other places. Plus there were cases like the McMartin trials, tales of alien abduction and satanic ritual abuse that served to confirm my conclusion. In almost every case there seemed to be an outside influence on the witnesses of these events. A facilitator planting memories in children of the abuses at a family day care, a hypnotherapist who has a rather large clientele of UFO abduction victims and police interrogation methods leading to charges of satanic rituals all pointed me the toward acceptance that False Memory Syndrome was real and needed to be fought.
— Henry L. Mencken
A single disorder covering all of those goings on may have been too irresistible to us skeptics to ignore. Was it so irresistible that we allowed our usual demands for evidence to be compromised? Did we drop our usual caution and gravitate toward the research that confirmed our bias only to ignore conflicting research or evidence? Worse, did we allow anecdotal evidence become our standard of proof in this one area? And if so, why? Make no mistake: there is a war going on in the area of memory research and it is far from over.
If I say that all remembered repressed memories of traumatic events are false, is there enough evidence support that statement?
Conversely, if I assert that all remembered repressed memories of traumatic events are true and accurate, is there enough evidence support that statement?
Based on what I have read in the research on memory, defending either of the above statements against the other, it seems to me, would require a serious amount of cherry picking from all of the available evidence. I would have to create a straw man to argue either of these positions against the other since I believe that our current knowledge in the area of memory renders both of these positions false. There is evidence that both repressed memories of real events and false memories of imagined events happen. Given the fragmentary nature of memory, there is also evidence of mixed up memories containing elements both real and false. Why should we assume that any of these kinds of memories are mutually exclusive?
In an excerpt from an article titled “Pseudoscience, Cross-examination, and Scientific Evidence in the Recovered Memory Controversy,” Psychologist Kenneth Pope, who advocates critical thinking when regarding the literature on false and repressed memory presents the problem this way:
Attempts to understand how adults could come to report newly emerging memories about having experienced child sex abuse have become all but lost in a bewildering blizzard of conflicting terms and concepts. As noted earlier, such reported memories may be conceptualized as the result of repression, dissociation, implanting, motivated forgetting, directed forgetting, amnesia, betrayal trauma, retroactive inhibition, suggestibility, self-induced hypnotic trance states, personality disorder, thought suppression, retrieval inhibition, cognitive gating, biological protective processes, a clinical syndrome, and so on. Such terms and concepts may be used without clear definition or differentiation, contributing to confusion, misunderstandings, and logical fallacies.And yet, the position of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) seems to be that all recovered memories are indeed false. They also make claim to a syndrome without bothering to describe a set of symptoms that the experts in memory can agree on. Worse, if a person remembers being sexually abused by a loved one, after repressing that memory for a while, and the loved one denies the accusation, the FMSF takes the position that the accuser is probably suffering from False Memory Syndrome and therefore the accused is a victim of a false accusation. In other words, being the accuser in the above scenario is the main symptom if the accused denies that it happened, regardless of any other symptoms the FMSF may have described. (Note: disclaimers to the contrary, every bit of research presented on the FMSF site and every study they source argues that repressed memory does not happen or that false memory does. Regardless of some very careful wording, their agenda looks obvious to this observer.) Is their list of symptoms window dressing? Is it an appeal for scientific credibility?
The prior section noted that some of the most prominent writers at both extremes of this controversy have helped popularize the unsupported notion that “recovered memories” of child sex abuse must inherently be conceptualized and defined as “repressed memories.” Using these terms interchangeably creates confusion and misleadingly contributes to flawed arguments such as the following:
- Recovered memories of sex abuse must be due to repression;
- There is no valid experimental evidence that repression exists;
- Therefore there is no scientific support for recovered memories.
Controversy often encourages oversimplification and confusion, and lays the ground for such fallacies. It may be important to avoid any unwarranted assumption that a single mechanism such as repression (or dissociation, etc.) is the sole possible explanation for forgetting or retrieving such experiences. Rather than looking for one mechanism at work in all instances in which memories of child sex abuse might be lost and later recovered, it may make more sense to ask: “What mechanisms, if any, enable the loss or recovery of child sex abuse memories for what individuals at what developmental levels under what conditions?”
- Recovered memories of sex abuse are a form of repression;
- There is experimental research demonstrating repression;
- Therefore there is research demonstrating recovered memories of sex abuse.
It seems to me that the position of the FMSF should cause some alarms to go off in a skeptic. The same alarms that went off when Recovered Memory Therapy was in its heyday. Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT) was a fishing expedition. It made the assumption that there were memories in need of recovering. So, those who practiced it went looking for memories. In the worst case scenario RMT looked for memories that would confirm the bias of the practitioner. Under those conditions a recovered memory could not be trusted. We suspect that the practitioner sometimes inadvertently planted some memories. There was real reason to be concerned about RMT and it has since been renounced as a legitimate therapy. But just the way RMT assumed there was a memory to be recovered, the FMSF, some psychologists and more than a few skeptics assert that all (or the vast majority of all) recovered memory is false. On what evidence is that position based?
Elizabeth Loftus demonstrated that memories could be implanted in some people (“Creating False Memories”). Just exactly why is it that we should leap to the conclusion that all recovered memories are therefore planted? How does it follow that because it can be demonstrated that a memory can be planted that no memory can be repressed?
Richard McNally argues that no memories are repressed. And in a strict Freudian sense he may be right. And yet he agrees that not all memories are remembered. We are just “not thinking about” them (p. 227, McNally). It seems to me, however, that if a memory is not accessible to us even after being asked about it, as has been demonstrated time and time again, it doesn’t really matter what we call it or in what part of our consciousness it resides. (Of course it matters to those who are in the business of sorting out how our minds work in order to provide better care for their patients. But to the person who has lost touch with a painful memory only to regain the memory years later, what difference does it make where the memory went?)
Let me lay out the game here as I see it. If the False Memory people can prove that no form of repression happens, then all recovered memories are false, by default. That is the brass ring for the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. The Holy Grail. That no repressed memory happens is the assumption they are operating from while they wait for the Grail to be found.
There may also be something of a political nature in the position of those who would like to see repression banished as a legitimate diagnosis from a legal point of view. Without that particular word in the diagnosis, in some states, the statute of limitations in criminal and civil cases involving a recovered memory would terminate when accuser turns 21. If a memory surfaces when the accuser is older, it cannot be considered for a civil suit. Time is up. So, there is some pressure on groups like the FMSF to banish the word altogether. With regard to the memory wars, one must consider this outcome as at least part of the incentive for the FMSF to push their agenda. They are, after all, an organization that exists to lend support to the accused.
Why is it that we skeptics should sign on to such a cause? As a skeptic, I have never been very comfortable with the idea that I should lend my support to those who would put the cart before the horse. Even while being skeptical of the idea that repressed memory happens, how can we, as skeptics, throw in with an organization that works from an assumption of such certainty in an area where so much uncertainty exists? With all of their hand waving, where is the evidence, even in the studies that they site, that a traumatic memory cannot be unavailable to its owner? And while we have plenty of reason to believe that memories can be false, the stakes become very high when we assume all recovered memories are false. In fact, and for the same reasons, that is as dangerous a notion as believing that all recovered memories are reliable. At what point did we skeptics become so knowledgeable in psychology that we could confidently make a call that many experts in the field have so much difficulty with? And yet there are well known and widely respected skeptics, skeptics I admire, sitting on the advisory board of the FMSF. Do they know something that I don’t know?
We were right to blow the whistle loudly when recovered memory therapy was doing its damage. We are still right in asking where memories of alien abduction and satanic abuse or memories recovered in some New Age quack therapy are coming from. We must be reasonably cautious when regarding memories recovered in or out of therapy sessions. But we may have lost our way when we assert that every claim to a recovered memory is necessarily false because some claims to a recovered memory are obviously false. We may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And that is not what we skeptics are about, is it? In the area of memory research, I do not think we are at the place where we can wrap up one side of the controversy in a nice tidy bow and yell “baloney!” at all the evidence that we don’t agree with, no matter how tempting that may be.
For further reading on this subject:
Pope Kenneth S. “Pseudoscience, Cross-examination, and Scientific Evidence in the Recovered Memory Controversy” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law vol. 4, issue #4 (pages 1160-1181)
McNally, Richard J. (2003) Remembering Trauma The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
Loftus, Elizabeth (1997) “Creating False Memories” Scientific American, 277, 70-75, 1997
Thanks to Michelle for logically challenging my beliefs. No skeptic can ever have a better significant other than that. If not for her, this report would have never happened.
Thanks once again to Dave W. for his fine editing. But most of all, thanks to Dave for following us through the unexpected twists and turns in our thinking that the research for this Kil Report and Michelle’s article demanded. It’s been a journey. These reports did not exactly go where we expected them to go…
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A Cherry Picker’s Guide To Choosing Evidence For Traumatic Repression Or False Memory Syndrome