False Memory Syndrome

This essay has a total of 3607 words and 16 pages.

False Memory Syndrome

Calling Memory Into Question:
A look at False Memory Syndrome
Memory is the mental faculty of retaining and recalling past experiences. A
repressed memory is one that is retained in the subconscious mind, where one is not aware
of it but where it can still affect both conscious thoughts and behavior.

When memory is distorted or confabulated, the result can be what has been called the False
Memory Syndrome: a condition in which a person's identity and interpersonal relationships
are entered around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in
which the person strongly believes (note that the syndrome is not characterized by false
memories as such). We all have memories that are inaccurate. Rather, the syndrome may be
diagnosed when the memory is so deeply ingrained that it orients the individual's entire
personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts

of other adaptive behaviors. The analogy to personality disorder is intentional. False
memory syndrome is especially destructive because the person assiduously avoids
confrontation with any evidence that might challenge the memory. Thus it takes on a life
of its own, encapsulated and resistant to correction. The person may become so focused on
the memory that he or she may be effectively distracted from coping with real problems in
his or her life (Loftus 1980, 1997).

There are many models which try to explain how memory works. Nevertheless,
we do not know exactly how memory works. One of the most questionable models of memory is
the one which assumes that every experience a person has had is 'recorded' in memory and
that some of these memories are of traumatic events too terrible to want to remember.
These terrible memories are locked away in the subconscious mind, i.e. repressed, only to
be remembered in adulthood when some triggering event opens the door to the unconscious.
Both before and after the repressed memory is remembered, it causes physical and mental
disorders in a person.

Some people have made an effort to explain their pain, even cancer, as coming from
repressed memories of incest in the body. Scientists have studied related phenomenon such
as people whose hands bleed in certain religious settings. Presumably such people, called
stigmatics, "are not revealing unconscious memories of being crucified as young children,
but rather are demonstrating a fascinating psychogenic anomaly that springs from their
conscious fixation on the suffering of Christ. Similarly, it is possible that conscious
fixation on the idea that one was sexually abused might increase the frequency of some
physical symptoms, regardless of whether or not the abuse really occurred."(Lindsay &
Read, 1994)

This view of memory has two elements: (1) the accuracy element and (2) the
causal element. The reason this model is questionable is not because people don't have
unpleasant or painful experiences they would rather forget, nor is it claiming that
children often experience both wonderful and brutal things for which they have no
conceptual or linguistic framework and hence are incapable of understanding them, much
less relating it to others. It is questionable because this model maintains that because
(a) one is having

problems of functioning as a healthy human being and (b) one remembers being
abused as a child that therefore (A) one was abused as a child and (B) the childhood abuse
is the cause of one's adulthood problems.

There is no evidence that supports the claim that we remember everything
that we experience. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to support the claim that it is
impossible for us to even attend to all the perceptual elements of any given experience,
much less to recall them all. There is no evidence to support the claim that all memories
of experiences happened as they remembered to have happened or that they have even
happened at all. And there is no evidence to support the claim that subjective certainty
about the accuracy of memories or the vividness of memories significantly correlates with
accuracy. Finally, the claim of a causal connection between abuse and health or behavior
does not warrant concluding that ill health, mental or physical, is a 'sign' of having
been abused (Loftus 1980).

This model is the basis for a number of pseudoscientific works on child abuse by
self-proclaimed experts such as Ellen Bass, E. Sue Blum, Laura Davis, Beverly Engel,
Beverly Holman, Wendy Maltz and Mary Jane Williams (Travis 1993). Through communal
reinforcement many empirically unsupported notions, including the claim that about half of
all women have been sexually abused, get treated as a 'fact' by many people. Psychologist
Carol Travis writes: "In what can only be called an incestuous arrangement, the authors of
these books all rely on one another's work as supporting evidence for their own; they all
recommend one another's books to their readers. If one of them comes up with a concocted
statistic--such as ‘more than half of all women survivors of childhood sexual trauma' --
the numbers are traded like baseball cards, reprinted in every book and eventually
enshrined as fact. Thus the cycle of misinformation, faulty statistics and unvalidated
assertions maintains itself." (Travis, 1993)

The only difference between this group of experts and say, a group of physicists is that
the child abuse experts have achieved their status as authorities not by scientific
training but by either (a) experience [they were victims themselves or they have treated
victims of abuse in their capacity as social workers] or (b) they wrote a book on child
abuse. The child abuse experts are not trained in scientific research which is not a

comment on their ability to write or to do therapy, but which does seem to be one reason
for their scientific illiteracy. (Travis, 1993)

Here are a few of the unproved, unscientifically researched notions that are being bandied
around by these child abuse experts: One, if you doubt that you were abused as a child or
think that it might be your imagination, this is a sign of 'post-incest syndrome'. Two, if
you can not remember any specific instances of being abused, but still have a feeling that
something abusive happened to you, 'it probably did'. Three, when a person can not
remember his or her childhood or have very fuzzy memories, 'incest must always be
considered as a possibility'. And four, 'If you have any suspicion at all, if you have any
memory, no matter how vague, it probably really happened. It is far more likely that you
are blocking the memories, denying it happened'.

There have been many symptoms suggested as indicators of past abuse. These
symptoms range from headaches to irritable bowels. In fact, one psychologist compiled a
list of over 900 different symptoms that had been presented as proof of a history of
abuse. When he reviewed the professional literature, he found that not one of the symptoms
could be shown to be an inclusive indication of a history of abuse. Given the lack of
consistent scientific evidence, therapists must be careful in declaring that abuse has in
fact occurred. (London, 1995)

Whole industries have been built up out of the hysteria that inevitably accompanies
charges of the sexual abuse of children. Therapists who are supposed to help children
recover from the trauma of the abuse are hired to interrogate the child, in order to find
out if they have been abused. But all too often the therapist suggests the abuse to the
child and the child has 'memories' of being abused, but no rational person should find a
parent

or caretaker guilty on the basis of such tainted testimony. [note 1]
Increasingly throughout the continent, grown children under going therapeutic programs
have come to believe that they suffer from "repressed memories" of incest and sexual
abuse. While some reports of incest and sexual abuse are surely true, these decade delayed
memories are too often the result of False Memory Syndrome caused by a disastrous
"therapeutic" program. False Memory Syndrome has a devastating effect on the victim and
typically produces a continuing dependency on the very program that creates the syndrome.
False Memory Syndrome proceeds to destroy the psychological

well being not only of the primary victim but through false accusations of incest and
sexual abuse other members of the primary victim's family. The American Medical
Association considers recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse to be of uncertain
authenticity, which should be subject to external verification. The use of recovered
memories is fraught with problems of potential misapplication.[note 2]

The dangers of this model are apparent: not only are false memories treated as real
memories, but real memories of real abuse may be treated as false memories and may provide
real abusers with a believable defense. In the end, no one benefits from encouraging a
belief in memory which is unfounded. Whatever the theory of memory one advocates, if it
does not entail examining corroborating evidence and attempting to independently verify
claims of recollected abuse, it is a theory which will cause more harm than good.

Carl Jung, an early Freudian disciple and later heretic, extended this model of memory by
adding another area of repressed memories to the unconscious mind, an area that was not
based on individual past experiences at all: the "collective" unconscious. The collective
unconscious is the repository for acts and mental patterns shared either by members of a
culture or universally by all humans. Under certain conditions these

manifest themselves as archetype: images, patterns and symbols, that are often seen in
dreams or fantasies and that appear as themes in mythology, religion and fairy tales. The
Archetype of the Archetype Model can be traced back to Plato's various beliefs about the
eidos. (Forms of reality which were variously described by Plato but always were held up
as 'more real' than the world of sense experience which, in some way, was always held up
as inferior to and dependant on the eidos.)

The Platonic Model avoids the problem of determining whether or not a memory is accurate
by claiming that the memory is not of a personal experience at all. It also confuses
several types of mental states. It completely blurs the distinction between dream states
and conscious states by eliminating the difference between remembering a sense experience
one actually had and remembering a sense experience one never actually had. This model
gives validity to every fantasy and desire. If one is clever, though, one can destroy the
first model with the second one. For example, a Jungian could claim that the repressed
memories of all those who are now blaming their current troubles on forgotten and
repressed memories of child abuse, are not memories of actual abuse but of an Archetype,
the Abused Child Archetype. The story of Hansel and Gretel might be pulled in for
"scientific" support of the idea. Unsupported assertions might be made regarding the
unconscious desire of all children to be loved by their parents: as children, love could
only be understood in terms of ego gratification, but as adults' love is understood
primarily in sexual terms.

Because of the incest taboo, we can not bear the thought of wanting to be loved sexually
by our parents, so this desire must be expressed in a perverse and inverse way: our
parents love us sexually. But there is no evidence for this based upon our past or current
relationship with our parents, so the mind creates the evidence by remembering being
sexually abused as a child. Thus, the memory we have as adults of being sexually

abused by our parents is actually the expression of the universal desire to be loved by
our mother and father. It has nothing to do with any real experience; it has everything to
do with a universal human desire. It also serves as a convenient excuse to absolve us of
all responsibility for our failures and incompetence. The reason we are so screwed up is
because our parents screwed us!

How accurate and reliable is memory? We're often wrong in thinking we
accurately remember things. Studies on memory have shown that we often construct our
memories after the fact. That we are susceptible to suggestions from others that help us
Continues for 8 more pages >>




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