memory syndrome refers to a condition in which an individual
experiences a false but strongly believed memory of a traumatic
Frequently, individuals who have experienced
a traumatic event may forget or repress the memory. This is
a defense mechanism, which Freud postulated has the function
of blocking out painful memories to reduce anxiety (see also
psychogenic amnesia). One function of psychotherapy is to
help individuals recover repressed memories, so that the trauma
can be dealt with in the open.
In 1988, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis published
a book called, "The Courage to Heal", which encouraged the
recovery of repressed memories of incest. They suggested that
individuals who have survived incest often have a common set
of symptoms, including feelings of shame, vulnerability and
worthlessness. From there, some therapists have argued that,
if an individual has these particular symptoms, then that
individual probably suffered childhood abuse but has repressed
the memory. Further, if the accused abuser denies the incident,
then he (or she) is either lying or has repressed the memory
When attempting to recover a memory of suspected
abuse, a therapist may begin by asking the patient to form
a detailed mental image of the event. As this imagery is repeated
over multiple treatment sessions, it grows successively more
vivid, until the entire memory is "recalled".
The problem is that memories recovered this
way are notoriously unreliable. The human memory is very vulnerable
to suggestion. Memories "recovered" under the influence of
hypnosis or drugs are particularly unreliable. But even strong
suggestion alone can influence what we remember. For instance,
in one research study, Loftus and Pickerall succeeded in convincing
about 25% of their adult subjects that they had been lost
in a shopping mall as children -- even though this had never
Once the memory is "recovered", the patient
may strongly believe in its validity, even to the point of
ignoring or denying evidence to the contrary. Worse, when
considering a rape that may have occurred several decades
ago, there is usually no objective evidence available to settle
There have been numerous sensational law
cases based on recovered memories. One example is the famous
case of Beth Rutherford, who "recovered" a memory, under her
therapist's guidance, that she had been regularly raped by
her father as a child, and that he twice impregnated her and
forced her to abort the fetus with a coat hanger. She sued
her father, who eventually had to resign his job as a clergyman
over the allegations. Later, medical examination confirmed
that Rutherford was actually a virgin who had never been pregnant:
her recovered memories of rape and abortion were actually
false (see Loftus, 1997).
It should be stressed that childhood incest
and rape do occur, that these memories can be repressed by
the victim, and that they may indeed be recovered years later.
But it is equally important to remember that memories are
vulnerable, and can be easily manipulated by unscrupulous
(or merely inept) therapists.
False memory syndrome may also account for
the memory construction process which leads people to "remember"
being abducted by UFOs, living a past life, or even lying
in a crib (few people have memories from before age 3).
E. Bass & L. Davis (1988). The Courage
to Heal. New York: Harper & Row.
D. Schacter (1996). Searching for Memory: The Brain, the
Mind and the Past. New York: Basic Books.
E. Loftus (1997, September). Creating false memories. Scientific
American, pp. 71-75.
C. Gorman (1995) Memory on Trial. Time, April 17, 1995,
E. Loftus and J. Pickerall, 1995. The formation of false
memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25: 720-725.
Article : "CONFABULATION"
by Catherine E. Myers. Copyright © 2006 Memory Loss and the Brain