The newsletter of the Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers University

What is False Memory Syndrome

False memory syndrome refers to a condition in which an individual experiences a false but strongly believed memory of a traumatic experience.

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 himself.

What causes False Memory syndrome

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 happened.

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 the question.

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).

Further Reading:

  • 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, p. 54-55.
  • E. Loftus and J. Pickerall, 1995. The formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25: 720-725.


by Catherine E. Myers. Copyright © 2006 Memory Loss and the Brain