Science & Pseudoscience Review in Mental Health

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Hidden Memories: Fact or Fantasy?

Authors:

Barry L. Beyerstein
James R. P. Ogloff

It has been estimated that, annually in Canada, as many as 20,000 children are sexually abused. Concern about child abuse began to grow in the early 1960s when the ground-breaking work of Dr. Kempe and his colleagues first came to the public's attention. Since that time, every jurisdiction in North America has adopted statutes for mandatory reporting of child abuse. Substantive, evidentiary, and procedural changes have been made to the legal system to improve how the courts and the justice system work with children who have been abused. Social workers, teachers, and medical staff have been taught to look for signs. Sadly, child abuse remains a pressing national problem.

In the vast majority of cases of child abuse and child sexual abuse that are reported and result in prosecution the victims vividly remember the brutalities they endured (even if, for any of a number of understandable reasons, they choose not to make a public accusation for a long time thereafter). Like many Holocaust survivors, torture victims, or those who have witnessed gruesome deaths of loved ones, these adult victims of childhood abuse often wish they could forget the horrible experiences that intrude mercilessly on their everyday thoughts. In contrast to these cases where obsessive ruminations about past traumas cannot be put aside, a relatively new problem has recently come to the fore. It has begun to affect the legal system and has piqued the curiosity and concern of the media and the public. The issue is that of allegedly "hidden" or "repressed" memories of child abuse or child sexual abuse. In cases of this sort, the victim reports no awareness of the abuse until long after it supposedly occurred.

Often, this newfound knowledge only surfaces in early or middle adulthood when recollection is triggered during therapy for other problems or after the individual has read one of a spate of "pop- psychology" books on the topic (e.g., Ellen Bass and Laura Davis' Courage to Heal). Only then does he or she suddenly become aware of the traumatic episodes. Such cases present a dilemma for the legal system and they have engendered heated controversy among memory researchers as well as psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals who work with victims of abuse.

Once again we are faced with the age old enigma of how to decide whether any memory is accurate or not. In cases of allegedly reinstated hidden memories, several additional difficulties arise.

A scenario that has been reported to us several times is one where a client contacts a therapist seeking help for feelings of general unhappiness, depression, or anxiety, or for other problems of living. If the therapist happens to believe that ill-focused malaise of this sort is frequently due to childhood sexual abuse, this possibility might be suggested to the client who is likely to be in a vulnerable and suggestible state at the time.

Given the usual ways that clients become paired with a particular therapist, it is unlikely that many would be aware in advance of this theoretical orientation on the part of the therapist or that it is not shared by all in the helping professions (some therapists have acquired a reputation for such leanings, however, and self-diagnosed clients are increasingly beginning to seek them out to validate their suspicions). The client who arrives with no inkling that he or she could have been abused may well reject the therapist's suggestion at first, especially in light of the realization of who the perpetrators would need to have been. In the topsy-turvey world of hidden memories this refusal actually becomes evidence for the hypothesized abuse rather than a reason to question it-- denial is considered further proof that the memories have been repressed. Several videotapes we have seen of therapists of this bent in action show that they can be very insistent indeed. Former clients who have contacted us tell of concerted efforts by their ex-therapists to convince them that they must have been molested and of how, in the process of counselling, they came to believe that they had been. They also recall their satisfaction at the time at finally arriving at an all-encompassing explanation for their despondency and having someone other than themselves or "fate" to blame, as well as having a target for the negative flood of emotions that ensues.

A variation on the theme, familiar to readers of The Skeptical Inquirer, is the related brand of therapist who is inclined to interpret psychological symptoms as evidence of alien abduction. With similar encouragements, alleged abductees can also supply detailed recollections of their capture, the extraterrestrials who snatched them, and the indignities they suffered. Interestingly, the tales abductees relate often have a theme of sexual violation to them as well. The belief that abductees have been rendered amnesic for their period of confinement and that this wall can only be breached by specially- trained counsellors who know what to look for sounds eerily like the received wisdom among those whose mission is to reveal hidden memories of child sexual abuse. If one has talked for any length of time with an alleged abductee, it is quite apparent that they fervently believe their stories. Unfortunately, obvious sincerity and commitment to an account are not particularly good indicators of its believability.

It is likely that abductees did have an experience, just as they describe it, but this by itself does not prove that it occurred outside of the theatre of their own minds. Recent research on so-called "fantasy-prone personalities" has shown that there is a small proportion of the non-psychiatric population whose mental imagery is so vivid and invasive that they frequently generate compellingly real subjective experiences that are mixtures of real percepts and detailed hallucinations. Because they cope well enough in family, social, and work settings, such individuals rarely come to the attention of psychiatrists or psychologists. They seem quite normal to all outward appearances. Fantasy-prone individuals were only discovered because of they appeared in large numbers in a research study that actively sought those with the very highest degree of hypnotic susceptibility.

An important difference between the alien abduction and child sexual abuse cases is that aliens, if they exist, are not close friends or family of the victims--and at any rate they are, at least for the time being, beyond the insufficiently long arm of the earthbound law. This difference makes the stakes much higher in the latter cases, for both the accuser and the accused. As one might expect, emotions run very high--not a situation well-suited to dispassionate search for the truth.

This was quite evident recently when Harold Leif, a psychiatrist critical of the hidden memory concept, was shouted down and prevented from giving a scholarly address on the subject at McGill University's Department of Psychiatry. The angry demonstrators who disrupted this lecture were activists committed to helping victims of sexual abuse. They came equipped with party noisemakers to drown out the proceedings. This unruly mob refused even to hear the speaker's evidence, accusing him in advance of merely wanting to help perverts escape justice. It was even reported that death threats had been uttered. The issue which so often gets lost in this inflamed rhetoric is not whether adults sexually abuse children.

Sadly, it happens. Rather it is whether coaxing out supposedly hidden memories from adults who were previously unaware of such abuse is a sound basis on which to lay one of the most serious charges that can be levelled against an individual in our society. To help us unravel such a thorny issue, it would be well to consider what the last hundred years of research has taught us about the nature of human memory.

Human memory for personal histories

The veracity of autobiographical memories is a perennial problem in criminal and accident investigations, court proceedings, historical research, psychotherapy, and everyday life. Skeptical researchers are rarely surprised to find that the recollections of responsible, well-educated people who have no intent to deceive can still be glaringly inaccurate when they try to remember exactly what they saw during a UFO sighting or the precise details of a self-professed psychic's performance.

On the other hand, as was demonstrated by the testimony of the Watergate witness, John Dean (when Richard Nixon's tapes were finally released), human memory is also capable of great precision and accuracy under the right conditions. Note, however, that the events Dean recounted were relatively recent and he never claimed to have been amnesic for them at any time. Generalizations about such abilities are made difficult by the fact that individuals vary greatly in this regard, as they do in athletic prowess or any other trait. Given the major penalties and payoffs that society apportions on the basis of believability of people's recollections, it is not surprising that the search for an understanding of what promotes accuracy or failure of memory has long attracted many of the best minds in experimental psychology.

Following the pioneering research of the Cambridge psychologist, Sir Frederick Bartlett, in the early part of this century, experts have come to accept that human memory is more reconstructive than previously thought. I.e., memory is not simply a perfect echo of past experience. What seems to be an unadorned replay of past events (often complete with detailed visual imagery) has, in fact, a substantial inferential component which has been shown to be affected by cognitive biases, short-cuts in reasoning strategies, social and contextual processes, and even personality factors.

Unfortunately, by mid- century, the competing "videotape" theory of memory came, temporarily, to overshadow Bartlett's more valid conceptualizations. This was largely due to misinterpretations and exaggerations of some dramatic demonstrations by the Montreal neurosurgeon, Wilder Penfield. Penfield found that vivid, almost hallucinatory memories can be elicited by stimulating the temporal lobes of patients' brains with weak electrical currents during brain surgery. While the results of this procedure made it appear to some that everything a person ever experiences might be recorded in minute detail in the brain (and thus be waiting to be triggered by the right stimulus), this interpretation has since given way under a barrage of logical as well as empirical attacks. Nonetheless, holdovers from Penfield's conception of memory continue to influence the thinking of those who espouse the notion of hidden memories.

In recent years, it has been the work of Elizabeth Loftus and her colleagues at the University of Washington that has done the most to cast doubt on this "store everything verbatim" school of memory and to demonstrate the superiority of Bartlett's reconstructive approach.

Since it is clearly impossible, even for the truly astonishing capacities of the human brain, to store every detail of a complex situation, memory must select and compress. Thus, it registers a few salient features of each episode, along with a label for what Bartlett called a "schema." A schema is a body of knowledge, acquired in the process of acculturation, that summarizes what typically occurs in events of various sorts. Which label is attached to the skeleton event stored in memory is a function of the meaning initially ascribed to the episode. Upon recall, the outline is "filled in" from data contained in the appropriate schema.

Because these inferential and reconstructive processes are largely unconscious, this creative aspect of memory generally escapes our notice. Inasmuch as daily life does include many repetitious, role-governed situations, this way of storing autobiographical memories is economical of our limited capacity to handle information and, most often, leads to a sufficiently accurate account of what transpired. It can, however, also generate egregious errors on occasion, even among highly intelligent and honest individuals.

Potential sources of distorted memories have been discovered at all stages of memory processing. During the initial experience, one's beliefs, wishes, and expectations can direct attention toward certain features of the situation and away from others. This affects how the event is classified from the outset. Because this interpretation influences the label attached to the event in memory, it can bias the selection of the schema that will be engaged to flesh out any later recollection. Significant omissions or insertions can result. Errors can also be introduced at the recall stage when an interrogator's leading questions invite unsound inferences that seem to arise spontaneously from the recaller's own memory. These misinterpretations can then feed back into the system as this modified version of the event re-enters memory to become part of the "recollection" on subsequent attempts.

Such tactics, known to stage magicians as "the invited inference," are used very effectively in various mentalist routines and are often copied by charlatans who wish to impress people with apparent psychic powers.

Cryptomnesia

Confusions also arise from the fact that we frequently retain factual information while forgetting how and when it was learned. The anomalous memory phenomena known as paramnesia and cryptomnesia have been studied extensively by psychologists interested personal memories. They contribute to many ostensibly paranormal experiences, including the occultists' old standby, deja vu. It is common for people to experience (during dreams, meditation, free association, daydreams, or hypnosis, for instance) detailed images of places and events that they feel certain they have never learned about or observed in person. Because they honestly cannot recall having been exposed to the information, they jump to the conclusion that it must have been fed to them in a supernatural way. The strong desire to believe in telepathy, aliens, or previous incarnations makes them seem more plausible sources than forgotten personal experiences or books, TV programs, or movies seen long ago.

The BBC investigative reporter Melvin Harris presents a beautiful example of this in his book, Sorry--You've Been Duped. Jane Evans' "astonishing hypnotic remembrances" of her previous life in ancient France-- widely touted as some of the best-ever evidence for reincarnation--turned out to have an uncanny resemblance to events in a historical novel that was very popular at the time she attended grammar school. Evans' accounts contained a mixture of accurate and inaccurate depictions of the time and place that just happened to parallel the artistic licenses taken by the novelist. Evans was thoroughly convinced, as were the researchers who were avidly seeking evidence for reincarnation, that she was recalling true memories of her previous life.

The inadvisability of concluding that just because you can't recall learning about something, your present knowledge of it must have supernatural origins will be obvious from the following example. Ask yourself, "Where is the Eiffel Tower?" Most likely, you instantly replied, "Paris." Can you now recall when and from whom you first learned the site of this famous landmark? Chances are you cannot, despite the fact that you would have been willing to place a very large wager on the veracity of your recollection. This is an example of "source amnesia" and it demonstrates that factual information is somehow stored separately from the autobiographical data concerned with how we came to know it. In such cases, we know something but not how we acquired it.

It is also possible to "know" things in our personal histories that aren't so. CSICOP Executive Council member James Alcock relates the story of reminiscing with old college chums about a fracas in a waterfront bar that had occurred back in their undergraduate days. At some point, Alcock chimed in, "And then remember when...?", only to be met with stunned silence, followed by a friend's retort, "But Jim, you weren't there!" On reflection, Alcock realized that he had heard this story so many times at previous reunions with his college buddies that he had unconsciously "written himself into" the stored scenario for this event that he now realized he could not possibly have witnessed in person. He was amazed to find that the "memory" of the brawl he dredged up included vivid visual images, complete with himself at the scene.

The late developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget described a similar experience. As an adult, he was sure that his earliest childhood memory was that of being rescued from a kidnapper by his brave nanny. Only many years later did the repentant nanny come to visit her former charge and confess that she had made up the story to avoid the censure of Jean's parents for bringing him home late. Piaget too had "memories," complete with detailed visual images of the nonexistent attacker and his nanny's stalwart defence. Similar to Alcock's "memories" of the barroom melee, this event had become part of Piaget's family history, retold to the point that it acquired the status of a real event in his mind. It is phenomena such as these that continue to make the study of memory one of the most active areas of experimental psychology.

Repressed memories and motivated forgetting

Returning to the issue of "hidden memories," an intense controversy has surfaced concerning the concept of "repression" or motivated forgetting of traumatic events. Also known as "inhibition," "dissociation," or a kind of "defence mechanism," repression denotes amnesia for certain distressing experiences, usually without any conscious effort to forget them. Believers in hidden memories contend that the reason there has been no recent awareness of the abuse is that the victim has repressed it to spare him- or herself the pain of reminiscence.

A heated debate exists in the professional literature concerning the very existence of repression. Those who accept the notion are largely therapists with a psychoanalytic (i.e., Freudian) bent. Experimental psychologists, by and large, tend to have more doubts about the idea of repression. They note, for instance, how many people fervently wish they could repress terrible scenes from their childhood. Even among those who accept the reality of repression, there are still disagreements about how extensive it is and what techniques, if any, might bring repressed memories to light. Various clinicians have advocated free-association, dream analysis, hypnosis, dissociative drugs, and guided imagery in a trance-like reverie as ways to revive these hidden memories. Critics contend that these procedures are as likely to produce fantasy and confabulations that feel like valid recollections as they are to expose true hidden memories.

Can hypnosis or related techniques do the trick?

Hypnosis researchers such as Ernest Hilgard, Martin Orne, Nicholas Spanos, and Robert Baker have shown numerous times how easy it is to produce pseudomemories in experimental subjects who will state with great conviction that the suggested events actually occurred. Another respected researcher, Kenneth Bowers, has shown that when people are required to identify previously seen objects in a group that contains a mixture of new and old items, hypnosis can slightly improve their hit rate in correctly identifying the previously-shown stimuli. However, it also raises the false alarm rate --i.e., hypnotized subjects were also more likely to label as repeats stimuli that they had not been shown before. Hypnosis, in general, is more likely to raise the person's confidence that his or her recollections are true than the actual probability of their being true.

There is a voluminous literature on so-called "demand characteristics" that shows that overt suggestions are not necessary to create pseudomemories--hypnotic subjects are adept at picking up and complying with very subtle cues as to what the hypnotist wants or expects. Two of the worlds leading hypnosis researchers, Martin Orne and Nicholas Spanos, have become convinced, in addition, that formal hypnotic procedures are not required to produce such compliance effects. For instance, the Berkeley researcher, Richard Ofshe, in an article entitled Inadvertent Hypnosis During Interrogation, demonstrated how repeated suggestions by insistent interrogators can elicit admissions to non-existent crimes.

The foregoing kinds of research support the contention that many of the techniques used by poorly trained therapists to ferret out possible histories of abuse are quite capable of producing what Orne has dubbed a "false memory syndrome." A foundation by that name has been founded by Orne and others who feel that at least some of the allegations based on hidden memory enhancement are being generated by sincere but deluded clients of questionably qualified therapists.

Predictably, The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) has become the lightning rod for victims' rights groups protesting that the organization is merely giving aid and comfort to those seeking to evade punishment for their actions. On a recent CBC radio program, the foundation was accused of being part of a well-funded right-wing fascist conspiracy! These critics tend to forget that, although members of the FMSF do say that accusations based on hidden memories should not be granted automatic credence just because they seem so real to the percipient, they also freely admit that they cannot rule out, in any given case, the possibility that abuse did take place.

The point is that there is no royal road to the truth and in the current climate that sometimes verges on hysteria, we need to be reminded that the possibility exists for unfairly convicting the accused as well as for denying justice to the alleged victim. One of the researchers (not connected with the FMSF) who has demonstrated under controlled conditions how unreliable children's apparently heartfelt recollections can be, Stephen Ceci of Cornell University, refuses to testify as an expert witness on behalf of either the prosecution or the defence in such cases because he feels, quite rightly, that showing how inaccurate memories can be in no way speaks to the truth or falsity of any particular accusation.

In an excellent article in the Fall, 1993 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, Scott Lilienfeld details the shortcomings of polygraphs, "honesty tests," hypnosis and other techniques touted as sure-fire arbiters of the truth. As one might expect, none of these quick fixes lives up to its advance billing. Unfortunately, assessing witness credibility in the absence of corroborative evidence remains an exact process. The dilemma is not helped by crackpot schemes such as a recent seminar, advertised for continuing education credit for registered psychologists, that offered to teach therapists to diagnose repressed memories of childhood abuse from clients' handwriting!

The time-honored rules of evidence and other due process requirements that have come down to us through English Common Law are far from perfect, but throwing them away because it is very hard to prove certain kinds of guilt is fraught with far greater perils in the long run. The old adage that it is better for a dozen guilty men to walk free than for a single innocent one to be convicted is in danger of being stood on its head in the rush to make amends for our culture's belated recognition of the problem of child sexual abuse. We do not serve the cause of justice by abandoning the demand for "proof beyond a reasonable doubt."

The therapist's burden

When apparent memories, elicited by the "enhancement" techniques discussed earlier, generate allegations of abuse suffered long ago, but for which there has been no awareness in the interim, the courts, clinicians, researchers and various advocacy groups are forced to wrestle with the ethics of acting on accusations based solely on this kind of evidence. This is especially so if the newly convinced victim initially entered psychotherapy to deal with different complaints and the therapist happens to have a strong commitment to the theory that early sexual abuse underlies many, if not most, adult psychological problems.

A further source of worry stems from the fact that many (but by no means all) practitioners who advocate uncritical acceptance of hidden memories are essentially self-taught counsellors with little formal training in psychology or psychiatry. In the time-honoured New Age tradition, many of them have "graduated" from a narrow apprenticeship in the one and only technique they know. "Watch one, do one, teach one" is their modus operandi. It is significant that those least skeptical of the hidden memory concept are often the least well informed about the relevant data in the scientific literature on human memory. Be that as it may, having talked to many of these counsellors, we would be the last to question their sincerity and their caring. They empathize deeply with their clients who are clearly suffering from something and who, on that basis alone, deserve our sympathy and our help. The question is not, "Should we try to help them rebuild their lives?"--of course we should. On the other hand, basic fairness dictates that we should demand reasonable confirmation before conceding that their very real malaise necessarily arises from past sexual abuse for which somebody deserves to be punished.

To muddy the waters further, there is often a considerable power differential between the accused and the accuser, and consciously or not, the temptation to bring down those in authority or to settle past scores must play a part in at least some accusations. In recent years, allegations of sexual abuse have been increasingly used, fairly or not, as leverage in child custody disputes. This has added to public confusion over just what the real incidence of abuse might be and fed suspicion in some quarters that many allegations are self-serving.

The recent mistrials and acquittals in several cases involving daycare workers accused of ritually abusing children have revealed many shoddy interviewing practices on the part of overzealous investigators. Moreover, certain tenets of the radical feminist movement also dovetail with the agenda of the hidden memory camp to introduce another explosive element into the mix.

Despite these reasons for caution, however, it must be emphasized yet again that sexual abuse and sexual harassment do occur, more often than many of us like to think. We must be careful not to let legitimate doubts about some accusations based solely on supposedly reinstated hidden memories lead us to discount other accusations where large amounts of time have not intervened, the victims never had any difficulty recalling their victimization, and where, ideally, there would be some corroborative evidence to bolster the charges.

The legal climate

Traditionally, the justice system has been wary of accepting unsupported memories as evidence if the disputed events are remote in time and/or the recaller stands to gain from the recollections. However, the tide seems to have been turning of late. Increasingly, criminal prosecutions and civil cases have been allowed to proceed, based solely on "recalled" events that have not only been quite old but which also surfaced only after therapists had made concerted attempts to "reveal" early memories.

The vast majority of Crown prosecutors are conscientious professionals who want to do the right thing. Many have contacted us seeking guidance--they are caught in an unenviable squeeze between alleged victims of the hidden memory type, clamoring for prosecution of their accused molesters, and the best traditions of their profession that say one does not lay extremely serious charges without sufficient evidence. Though the public does see some prosecutions that should never have gone to court, we do not see the larger number that prosecutors decline to pursue.

Mental health professionals, the media, and the public have been unconscionably tardy in acknowledging that sexual and other abuse of youngsters is more prevalent than any of us wanted to believe. This has prompted a rebound and with it a growing public willingness to credit, uncritically, any accusation based on hidden memories. Some experts think, though, that the incidence of abuse, tragic as it is, has come to be exaggerated, and that the pendulum has swung from undue skepticism in the past all the way to today's overly credulous acceptance of allegations based on uncorroborated hidden memories. In other words, their worry is that the unfairness may have shifted from that of allowing perpetrators to go unpunished and their victims to be further victimized to the other extreme where an increasing number of innocent people are being denounced by sincere but mistaken accusers.

Conclusion

All accusations of sexual abuse should be thoroughly investigated, first by competent clinicians working with the accuser and, if indicated, by the best methods of police procedure and forensic science. It is in the best interests of real survivors of abuse for the hidden memory issue to be explored dispassionately and in detail. It would be most unfortunate for real victims if the growing public awareness of some demonstrably false accusations and of the existence of a false memory syndrome were to engender another backlash that would hinder their efforts to achieve justice and to alleviate their suffering. There is a danger that, left exclusively to debate in the media, the high academic credentials of those who can demonstrate that false memories are possible and the questionable behaviour of some therapists of the opposite persuasion will lead the public to conclude, quite unfairly, that most accusations of child molestation are bogus.

Those who feel, even if mistakenly, that they were victims of abuse, deserve our understanding and compassion. Like so many of us, they are searching for solutions to their very real unhappiness. Sexual abuse has become a trendy explanation for all sorts of ills and these people should not be castigated if the suggestion rings true for them, even if it is not. If, in trying to spare other innocent parties the horrors of false accusation, we deny these troubled souls this rationale and course of action, we owe them no less compassionate and competent help to discover and deal with the real causes of their distress.