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Sociology > Psychology > Recollection or Fabrication?

By Layla Dowthwaite

Recollection of Repression or Fabrication of Imagination?

Since the first cases involving repressed memories were taken to court, controversy has developed concerning the credibility of childhood memories which ‘emerge into consciousness’ (Loftus 1993, p518) in later adult life. Recent research suggests that creating a false memory in certain people’s minds is not unachievable, although determining the authenticity of memories is virtually impossible without corroborating evidence. This leaves us wondering about the validity of our own recollections, how time can distort the way our mind stores memories, and if it really is possible that we can be convinced to truly believe something which never occurred actually took place. Psychoanalysis is the major technique used to unleash (or create) repressed memories, developed by the founder of psychology, Sigmund Freud.

Freud’s theory of repressed memories came about from his theory of the human mind, consisting of the id, superego, and ego. When a child experiences something shocking and traumatic, regarded as deeply emotionally painful, the ‘ego’ activates a defense reaction, diverting these threatening thoughts ‘out of awareness’ (Atkinson, Atkinson, Smith, Bem and Nolen-Hoeksema, 2000, p450) and into the unconscious, where they appear forgotten and inaccessible. Here it is believed that the isolated thoughts affect us in ‘indirect or disguised ways’ (Atkinson, Atkinson, Smith, Bem and Nolen-Hoeksema 2000, p276), by appearing in dreams, mannerisms, irrational behaviours, and leading to increased vulnerability to mental and physical illnesses. The more frequently we encounter cues, e.g. a person linked with the memories, the easier it is to keep the thoughts repressed. The energy used in this constant prevention of awareness is thought to be taxing on the body, hence the susceptibility to illness.

Patients with mental problems such as sexual dysfunction, low self-esteem, insomnia, and self-destructive behaviour are probed for memories of sexual abuse, incest, assault, and even satanic ritual abuse, and therapists often ‘uncover’ these sorts of repressed memories to explain the condition. Confiding in someone about anything leads to better health, as the recounting of events and emotions familiarises the trauma, and, by receiving support and validation once verbally declaring it concrete, it eventually becomes easier to deal with, and one is ‘cured.’ The realisation of these feelings and memories initially causes anxiety and often hostility towards those concerned, as the frightening thoughts are often ‘inconsistent with self-concepts’ (Atkinson, Atkinson, Smith, Bem and Nolen-Hoeksema 2000, p500). Often those accused intensely deny the abuse, desperate to understand why their adult offspring has suddenly turned on them. One example claims ‘Satan’s wicked spirits planted untruths in her head’ (Loftus, 1993, p530).

Opinions vary on the accuracy of the memories produced. To reverse this powerful inhibition mechanism, psychotherapists draw out the memories by encouraging some of the associated emotions of the patients. Some suspicious quotes used by therapists and self-help books such as ‘The Courage to Heal’ include ‘..if a women says it happened, it happened,’ ‘..I have no reason not to believe them,’ ‘..if you are unable to remember any specific instances like the ones mentioned above but still have a feeling that something abusive happened, it probably did,’ ‘..you sound like the sort of person who was sexually abused. Tell me what that bastard did to you?’ (Loftus, 1993), and ‘spend time imagining that you were sexually abused, without worrying about accuracy, proving anything, or having your ideas make sense’ (Loftus 1997). SIA (survivors of incest anonymous) has also been accused of fostering development of constructed memories. One member says it ‘helps us to remember what happened so we can stop being controlled by incest’ and another quotes ‘I think I was abused, but I don’t have any memories’ (Loftus, 1993).

In 1989 American ‘legislation permitted people to sue for recovery of damages for the injury suffered as a result of childhood abuse within 3 years of the time they remembered the abuse’ through the ‘delayed discovery doctrine‘ lawsuits using a plea for ‘emotional justice’ and ‘devictimisation’ (Loftus, 1993, p520). As abuse statistics rose, along with feminist pressure, more women sought therapy intending to find repressed memories to blame their problems on. Suggestive questioning, some therapists’ persistent intrusive probing, and sometimes refusing to take no for an answer contributed to lawsuits turning the other way, and instigated research in false memory construction.

How is it possible to hold memories that are discovered to be artificial? In 1986, Nadean Cool sued her psychiatrist for malpractice because she had developed false memories as a result of questionable therapy. In 1992, Beth Rutherford ‘uncovered’ childhood memories that her father regularly raped her, impregnating her twice. Medical exams at age 22 revealed that she was still a virgin. A man was accused of abuse, told he was in denial, and after 5 months of interrogation and pressure he confessed to rapes, assaults, Satan-worshipping, and even specific events such as forcing his son and daughter to have sex, which were all false (Loftus 1997). Memories of events can be both derived and distorted both externally and internally, and usually over time they become more believable. Discussions with relatives, media content, illusions, psychologists, others’ experiences, ‘filling in the gaps’ and hallucinations can all contribute, often to memories indistinguishable from factual events.

Evidence from studies investigating this issue suggests confirmation that it is possible to make people believe that ‘complete, emotional and self-participatory’ events occurred when they did not, ‘directly connecting imagined actions to the construction of false memories’ (Loftus 1997). This undetectable invasion, described by Loftus as a ‘Trojan horse’, indicates that we can be easily influenced or tricked, and exposes exploitation of psychoanalysis, a violation of ethical rights, and it questions interrogation techniques of police as well as therapists. In reality, the formation of the hippocampus in infancy does not allow long-term childhood memories to be stored until adulthood. Can our brain deceive us, by confusing our imagination with reality?

Memory is not as reliable as it seems in revealing the truth about our past. ‘False memories occur in many different contexts and can be quite compelling’ (Payne, Neuschatz, Lampinen, &Lynn 1997). How can authentic repressed memories, or even anything, ever be completely validated? Just another deceptive nature-nurture factor in society’s widespread blurred distinctions between right and wrong. Keeps life interesting, don’t you think? Do you really know? How can you be so sure?

References
Layla Dowthwaite
Anderson, M.C. & Green, C (2001). Suppressing unwanted memories by executive control. Nature, 410 (15 March), 366-369.
Atkinson, R.L., Atkinson, R.C., Smith, E.E., Bem, D.J., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1996) Hilgard’s introduction to Psychology (12th edition). Fort Worth: Harcourt.
Conway, M.A. (2001). Repression revisited. Nature, 401 (15 March), 319.
Loftus, E.L. (1993). The reality of repressed memories. American Psychologist, 48, 518-537
Loftus, E.L. (1997). Creating false memories. Scientific American, 277 (September) 50-55.
Loftus, E.L. (1997). Memory for a past that never was. Current directions in Psychological Science, 6, 60-65.
Payne, D.G., Neuschatz, J.S., Lampinen, J.M., & Lynn, S.J.,(1997). Compelling memory illusions: The qualitative characteristics of false memories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 6, 56-59.




 

Index
Adolescence
Human behaviour
Girls are not sluts
Improving memory
Recollection or fabrication





 
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