It was a little more than 10 years ago when the stories about "recovered memories" first began to make their way into news. We learned about adult daughters and sons who'd apparently been living normal, reasonably happy, and successful lives, until suddenly they began having horrifying flashbacks, body memories, nightmares, or vague images of sexual abuse. Often these archived images emerged unexpectedly during therapy, which the client had sought for what seemed like more ordinary problems. In some cases, these terrible memories led adult children to accuse their parents of abuse, seemingly out of the blue.
Then came the response of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, a support and advocacy organization formed by parents who insisted they'd been falsely accused of sexually abusing their children. And, inevitably, the much-publicized court cases in which therapists were sued for huge sums for either implanting memories of abuse when none had taken place or at least reinforcing memories that were no more than figments of the imagination of troubled clients.
The recovered-memory debate polarized the professional community like few controversies before or since. An apparently unbridgeable chasm developed between those who believed that most instances of recovered memory were accurate and those who thought that such memories were glaring examples of the terrible damage therapists could wreak upon their clients and their families. At the time, with the exception of a few provocative studies by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, there wasn't much in the way of solid empirical research on how people store memories and why they might remember things that aren't accurate to resolve the questions raised by both sides. Now a group of Harvard psychologists headed by Richard McNally is embarked on a series of studies that they hope will shed light on the phenomenon of recovered memory.
In 2000, the group published its first study of women who reported recovered memories of sexual abuse. The researchers found that, in laboratory tests, these women were more likely to exhibit distortion on memory tasks than women who'd always remembered their abuse. This fall, the group published a study with such an unusual twist that it became the subject of a story in The New York Times. Lead author Susan Clancy, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, and McNally, along with noted memory expert Daniel Schacter, former associate professor Mark Lenzenweger, and medical school professor Roger Pitman, decided that one way to study how intensely believed memories can be made up was to focus on an event that most people consider highly improbable--alien abduction.
After a lengthy screening process, the research group identified and then studied three groups. The first group reported having recovered memories of alien abductions (none of the participants in this group had continuous memories of being abducted; rather, they first suspected having been abducted, then recovered memories of the abduction). A second group believed they'd been abducted by aliens, but had no recall of the experience (participants in this group believed that a variety of puzzling signs and symptoms indicated they'd been abducted by aliens). The third was a control group of ordinary study volunteers.
Clancy and her associates found that people who reported being abducted were significantly more likely than the control group to exhibit false recall and recognition in memory tasks. They also scored higher on measures of hypnotic suggestibility, depressive symptoms, and magical ideation, which the study defines as "belief in unusual forms of causality."
Since Clancy's research was published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology and reported on in the Times and other publications, she's received angry responses, not only from those who believe in alien abductions, but also from therapists who think her study places those who claim to have recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse on the same footing as those who claim to have been visited by creatures from outer space. …