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Home False Memory/Recovered Memory Debate by Lorraine Jaksic


Pastoral Sciences , 18 (1999), pp.127-150

'False Memory/Recovered Memory' Debate by Lorraine Jaksic


The terminology of this discourse began in Europe, a hundred years or more ago, within various fields in psychology (Briere, 1992; Horowitz, 1986; van der Kolk, 1994). The advent of the industrial era gave rise to many opportunities in which the careful observation of the characteristics of posttraumatic neuroses could take place. Eventually, the legal problem of compensation arose because the traumatic events were seen as the potential responsibility of others and not self inflicted. This lead to an increase in the funding of laboratory experiments concerning the properties of 'learning' and by implication, 'memory', and to increased studies of hospitalized people exhibiting posttraumatic neuroses. "The implication of nonconscious, psychological motivational factors in symptom formation was a topic of considerable controversy" (Horowitz, 1986, p. 14). A body of literature developed through the clinical problem of diagnosis and the etiological formu-lation of posttraumatic neuroses. Out of this literature in the late 19th century, many psychiatrists and psychologists sought to understand 'hysteria' and its relation to trauma (Horowitz, 1986; van der Kolk, 1994). Since Freud's use of the words 'repression' and 'unconscious mind', there has been much debate in psychology.

The early methods of psychoanalysis described by Freud (1954), in which hysterical symptoms were explored in terms of associated memories and fantasies, revealed that earlier psychological traumas were manifested indirectly or symbolically as symptoms of hysteria. Also, the person became obsessed with the trauma and it was understood by Freud that this 'fixation' was biologically based. His clients reported feeling and behaving as if the traumatic events were repeated over and over again, but that they were unable to locate the origins of those feelings. Freud (1954) suggested that memories and details of the events were 'repressed' into unconsciousness in order for the individual to cope with "their potential to produce extreme psychical conflict" (Briere, 1992, p. 17). For instance, if a person experienced a measure of enjoyment from the abuse, either through the sexual contact or because of some reward or benefit, then they may actively repress the abuse memories in order to avoid feelings of shame or guilt. Initially, Freud concluded that childhood sexual abuse was the cause of most of the symptomatology found in his clients (primarily adult females). However, he later retracted this conclusion and stated that the symptomatology must be due to the fantasizing of sexual appetites, otherwise, one would have to conclude that this type of abuse was extremely common. After WW1, Freud subsequently noted similarities between the fixation on trauma seen in war veterans and that seen in hysteria. 'Dream sleep' was the only place were the events could surface more safely cloaked in symbolism. This realization led Freud to believe that the cause of the fixation and the compulsion to relive the trauma was due to 'repression' of the memories in the 'unconscious' mind: "the trauma may be symbolically repeated over and over again" (Horowitz, 1986, p.16).

Contemporary researchers (e.g., Courtois, 1994, Reber, 1993 and Terr, 1991), prefer to use the term 'amnesia' to refer to the concept of memory loss, rather than repression of memories blocked from conscious awareness, as repression' tends to conceptualize memory as residing in the mind only. The broader conceptualization of 'amnesia' is consistent with research evidence suggesting that many victims of childhood sexual abuse have 'body memories' which remember what the conscious mind has forgotten (Herman, 1992; Kristiansen, 1994; Napoli, 1992; Reber, 1993; van der Kolk, 1994; Williams, 1994; Briere & Conte, 1993; Herman & Schatzow, 1987).

Erdelyi (1992) describes body memories as procedural or implicit memories whose declarative components have been lost to accessible recall" (p.786), where procedural knowledge refers to "knowledge that guides action and decision making but typically lies outside of the scope of consciousness" (Reber, 1993, p. 16). Greenwald (1992) argues that the unconscious is organized in a 'network' of complex internal processes and schemata, which he calls 'hidden units', that can be active without gaining access to verbal outputs. Furthermore, van der Kolk (1994) argues effectively for a biological foundation of abnormal psychophysiological responses in traumatized people. In short, previously conscious knowledge can be stored in inaccessible memory (Erdelyi, 1992; Greenwald, 1992; Horowitz, 1986; van der Kolk, 1994) and recalled during states of "hypermnesia - the increase of memory over time" (Erdelyi, 1992, p.786). In this way, the 'mind' memory loss serves as a means of getting through the ordeal of trauma and its aftermath, but "the body keeps the score" of the abuse (van der Kolk, 1994, p.253).

The concept of amnesia, therefore, suggests a 'dissociative defense' against recalling and re-experiencing traumatic abuse (Briere, 1992; Herman, 1992; Williams, 1992, 1994; Bass & Davis, 1994; Kristiansen, Gareau & DeCourville, 1994). Briere and Conte (1993) suggest that the relationship they found between no recall of traumatic memories and trauma (as measured by violence or injury), on the one hand, and the lack of association between no recall and conflict (as measured by guilt, shame and enjoyment) on the other hand, fits the passive process of dissociation better than an active defensive process of repression. Therefore, by dissociating, victims may function relatively normally for the duration of the traumatic event, thereby keeping a large part of the personality unaffected by the trauma (Herman, 1981, 1992; Horowitz, 1986; van der Kolk, 1994; Briere & Conte, 1993).

Schacter and Moscovitch (1984), and Sherry and Schacter (1987, p.447) postulate that "two different and at least partially independent memory systems" have evolved, implicit and explicit. They suggest that these two memory systems evolved because of 'functional incompatibility' between demands made by the environment and the properties of the biological systems. They argue that functional incompatibility exists when an adaptation serves one function as a solution to a specialized problem, but at the same time renders that system incompatible with the specialized demands of other problems.

Reber (1993) notes that when learning takes place there is a distinction between the implicit unconscious aspects of cognitive functioning and the explicit conscious aspects of it. Implicit learning is defined as the "acquisition of knowledge that takes place largely independently of conscious attempts to learn and largely in the absence of explicit knowledge about what is acquired"; therefore, one may conclude that "implicit learning is a fundamental "root" process, one that lies at the very heart of the adaptive behavioral repertoire of every complex organism" (Reber, 1993, p. 5). Thus, abuse victims unconsciously learn (implicit learning) to dissociate themselves from the events taking place without realizing (explicit learning) what they are learning. In short, amnesia protects the victim against reliving the anxiety and distress accompanied by the recall of traumatic abuse.

Earlier research investigating learning and memory was motivated by questions prompted through the classical philosophical study of epistemology with regard to the acquisition and representation of complex knowledge. Reber 1993) notes that the interest in epistemological issues influenced early grammar learning studies because they "argued effectively for the importance of tacit knowledge, knowledge whose origins and essential epistemic contents were simply not part of one's ordinary consciousness (p. 12). Indeed, Thorndike and Rock (1934) had indicated that "learning is very variable among individuals and within the same individuals" and that "there can be no doubt, however, that the tendency to make a systematic error is in general strengthened" without realizing that they have been taught or the nature of what was learned (p. 14). Findings like these were temporarily de-emphasized in the discipline of psychology over the next few decades as behaviorism and cognitive psychology developed different foci of attention through their res-pective paradigms (Sherry & Schacter, 1987; Reber, 1993).

As the research concerning explicit learning continued, under the behaviorists, 'memory' came to be viewed as a general information acquisition process. Reber (1993) claims that by the mid-70's research showed these learning processes to be situation-neutral induction processes. However, more recently there has been a resurgence of interest in the unconscious mind. Thus, new research suggested that the acquisition of complex information about any stimulus in the environment is learned largely independently of the person's awareness of either the process of acquisition or of the pool of knowledge acquired. Subsequent research has since de-emphasized the behaviorist model in its strictest sense by suggesting that information about the environment, emotions, and coping mechanisms, can become a conscious experience when the encoded elements are translated into representational form (Horowitz, 1986; Lifton, 1988). This implies that when implicit and tacit information (body memories) are received and not put into representational form, the information is in the prerepresentational state in the unconscious. In order to explain this phenomenon, Greenwald (1992) distinguishes between two meanings of unconscious cognition: (a) cognition without attention, and (b) verbally unreportable cognition.

Presently, the interplay of explicit/conscious and implicit/unconscious learning and memory is being researched with a view to incorporating earlier philosophical questions (Erdelyi, 1992; Greenwald, 1992; Herman, 1981, 1992; Horowitz, 1986; Reber, 1993; Williams, 1992, 1994), the sociobiology of memory systems (Schacter & Moscovitch, 1984; Sherry & Schacter, 1987), and the psychophysiological foundations of trauma, stress response and memory (van der Kolk, 1994). The dissociative properties of unconscious cognition with regard to trauma are seen by many researchers and clinicians as providing coping mechanisms for some childhood sexual abuse victims.

Thus, it is essential that a distinction be made between 'repressed' infor-mation as a means of coping in day-to-day situations involving personal conflict and the dissociation processes' that result in amnesic behavior as a life-saving skill in the face of repetitive traumatic events. The varied terminology and what these terms represent to various elements of society have major implications in terms of an understanding of trauma, both for those who suffer the different types of trauma and those who impose it on victims. Research on the psychological sequelae of childhood sexual abuse suggests that one in three women and one in six men in Western culture have experienced sexual abuse (Briere, 1991, 1996; Campbell, 1992; Finkelhor, 1979; Herman, 1981). In addition, recent reports on the victimization of very young children indicate that "one-third or more of their sexual abuse victim samples are under the age of six" (Gale, Thompson, Moran & Sack, 1988, p. 163). Also, applications of the varied terminology surrounding this debate may have serious political and legal ramifications for traumatized lives. Moreover, as society recognizes the frequency of childhood sexual abuse in our culture, and the distinction is made between trauma caused by a single catastrophic event versus trauma as the result of repetitive domestic and/or community violence, appropriate changes must be made in law to accommodate the distinction.

As indicated previously, Loftus (1993) and Loftus et al. (1994) believe that false' memories can be impressed upon adults who are vulnerable. Without question this is possible, and in some cases probable, just as there can be bad therapy, bad legal advice, a wrong prescription given or interpreted, and misguided but well intentioned parents (Cronin, 1994). Kristiansen (1994) cites 5% of cases reporting recovered memories which may be false based on the percentage of children's false allegations. The possibility of implanted memories is not disputed by those who research childhood trauma, those who work with survivors and the survivor community itself (Herman, 1981, 1992; Bass & Davis, 1994). However, the issue of 'false memory' implants has become a highly controversial one involving a political platform seeking new legislation which will affect admissible evidence and the statute of limitations in the courts with regard to recovered memories (Salter, 1989). Quirk and Deprince (1995) state, "This proposed legislation is based on the premise that the work of many psychotherapists and the techniques used in therapy are fraudulent and not scientifically based" (p.261). Many researchers, clinicians and survivors cite the newly formed False Memory Syndrome Foundation as the lobbyist force behind the new legislation and question the Foundation's motives.


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