|Church Must Accept Reality of False Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse
The Notion That Therapists Can Help People to 'Recover' Memories of Sexual Abuse Causes Serious Harm to Patients and Their Families, Writes Psychologist Chris French
By Chris French
March 1, 2010
UNITED KINGDOM -- Last April, I wrote a column on the topic of false memories of childhood sexual abuse and the misery that such memories, typically "recovered" during therapy, can cause.
On Friday, in my role as a member of the scientific and professional advisory board of the British False Memory Society (BFMS), I was more than happy to be a signatory to a letter to the archbishop of Canterbury concerning the views expressed by the Rev Pearl Luxon, safeguarding adviser to the Church of England, who is responsible for child protection issues. Luxon apparently accepts her advisers' assertion that "there is no such thing as 'false memory'" and that, "It is quite common when people have suffered severe trauma for memory to be patchy and disjointed."
These are dangerous and uninformed views for someone in such an influential position.
The letter to the Rowan Williams, which I would urge you to read in full for a more informed perspective on the subject of false memories and the truth about memory for traumatic events, concludes by asking how Luxon might have come to adopt such views in the first place.
The sad truth is that such views about the nature of memory are still surprisingly common among people in all walks of life, despite well over a century of scientific research into the way memory works. Luxon asserts that "there is no such thing as 'false memory'. It is either a memory or it is not."
I can only assume that such a view must be based upon the erroneous notion that memory in some sense works like a tape recorder or a video camera, accurately recording all that happens around us. According to this view, 'real' memories would always be 100% accurate replays of previous events as we originally experienced them. Anything that is not 100% accurate is therefore not really a memory at all, and therefore false memories cannot exist.
A survey last year of more than 600 undergraduates at a Midwestern university in the USA revealed that about 27% believed that memory does indeed operate like a tape recorder. Other surveys show that 36% of us believe that our brains retain perfect records of everything we've ever experienced, a mistaken view that, worryingly, is shared by some psychotherapists.
The truth is that memory is always a reconstructive process, not a reproductive one. What we think we recall about events, with degrees of confidence ranging from uncertainty to absolute conviction, is actually a construction based upon a mixture of accurate recollections and gaps filled in upon the basis of our general knowledge and beliefs about what is plausible, our expectations, fragments of recollections of other similar events, and even input from dreams, fantasies and imagination.
Importantly, our confidence in the memory is not a reliable guide to its accuracy.
Let me illustrate this point with a couple of everyday examples. We've all seen clocks and watches with Roman numerals on them, probably many thousands of times across our lifespan. So you will know how the number four is represented on such timepieces. Is it "IV" – or is it "IIII"?
I know from using this example in countless classroom demonstrations that most people reading this article will be confident that it is "IV". You are wrong. On the vast majority of clocks and watches, the four is represented as "IIII" and not in the more usual form of "IV". (Note to pedants: I know that the clock upon what is commonly referred to as Big Ben is an exception to this rule. I also know that strictly speaking the clock is not Big Ben, the bell is!)
When I asked you to recall an image from memory of a timepiece bearing Roman numerals, most of you will have conjured up an image of what you think you must have seen when you usually look at such objects rather than what you actually have seen. Memory is a reconstructive process.
Now think back to a recent holiday. Think of a specific incident – a memorable meal or a walk on the beach – and try to conjure up a detailed and accurate mental image of that scene. Can you see yourself in the image? Many people (not all) report that they can – in which case, this clearly is not a replay of what was experienced at the time, as it is being "seen" from a different perspective. Once again, memory is shown to be a reconstructive process.
It follows that not only can memories of events that we actually did witness become distorted but the mind is even capable of generating apparent memories for entire episodes that never took place at all. These are what is referred to in the scientific literature as "false memories". Such memories can range from everyday, harmless examples (Did I lock the back door or just think about locking the back door?) through to extremely damaging examples of "recovered" memories of childhood abuse or even ritualised Satanic abuse, taking in along the way bizarre false memories of alien abduction and past lives.
Why are such mistaken notions of how memory works - clearly shared by Luxon - dangerous? A belief that everything we ever experience is accurately recorded somewhere within our brains leads inevitably to the idea that it might be possible to recover memories of everything we have ever experienced if only the right techniques are employed.
Many psychotherapists are convinced that severe trauma, such as childhood sexual abuse, can lead to repression. Repression is the psychoanalytic notion that under such overwhelming emotional circumstances the mind automatically and involuntarily banishes the resulting memories to the unconscious regions of the mind, from where they have a toxic effect upon psychological well-being, despite being inaccessible to consciousness.
Therapists also claim that the only way to become psychologically healthy is to "recover" these memories and work through them with a psychotherapist, using techniques such as hypnotic regression and guided imagery. Because there is no 'buried memory' to recover, the search for repressed memories can itself lead to the mental construction of completely false scenarios.
Indeed, none of the claims upon which this therapeutic approach is based is supported by any convincing scientific evidence. Yet the damage that can be done to patients and their families by such psychotherapists is well documented.
For most people, a little reflection on their own personal experiences of memory is enough to convince them that memory does not work like a tape recorder and that false memories do occur. Research into memory, and in particular the processes underlying the formation of false memories, has proved this beyond all reasonable doubt.
The fact that the Church of England official responsible for child protection appears not to have familiarised herself with the evidence on a topic that is central to her role is deeply worrying.
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