The Recovered Memory/False Memory Debate

By Smith, Marilyn C | Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, September 1997 | Go to article overview

The Recovered Memory/False Memory Debate


Smith, Marilyn C, Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology


The elusive search for the truth: A review of Pezdek, K. and Banks, W.P. (1996). The recovered memory/false memory debate. San Diego: Academic Press. (394 pages).

Over the last decade, there has been a virtual explosion in the number of adults coming forward claiming to have been sexually abused as children. The prototypical claimant is an educated women in her late 20s who initially sought therapy for help in dealing with any of a variety of symptoms, including depression, low self-esteem, substance abuse, eating disorders, and sleeping disorders. Importantly, it is often the case that prior to beginning therapy there were no memories of childhood sexual abuse. The debate addressed by this book is whether memories of sexual abuse which are recalled during the course of therapy are real - i.e., recovered memories - or the result of suggestions made by the therapist - i.e., false memories.

The debate is primarily between clinicians and cognitive psychologists, and has at its root their different views of how memory operates. The model of memory held by many therapists is that memory is like a video-recorder, keeping a permanent record of all experiences. Failure to remember an event results either from a lack of the appropriate retrieval cues, or from the active repression of an event due to its traumatic nature. The general belief is that the symptoms which the patient is manifesting result from these unconscious, repressed memories. The goal of therapy, then, is to help the subject remember the childhood sexual abuse. By this model, there is no mechanism whereby a memory can be false; it may not be available, but once it becomes available, it is a veridical representation of a real event. There is no reason to expect memory distortion or fabrication.

In contrast, the model of memory adhered to by most cognitive psychologists is very different. Memory is not a passive recording of information, but an active, re-constructive process. Most importantly, memory is seen as being susceptible to suggestion. Since the groundbreaking work of Elizabeth Loftus, cognitive psychologists have demonstrated how suggestions can not only change memory, but actually produce new memories. In light of the susceptibility of memory to suggestions -- particularly if they are made repeatedly, and if the person making the suggestions is an authority figure -- cognitive psychologists have raised the possibility that some of the memories of childhood sexual abuse recovered during therapy may not be accurate.

The edited book by Pezdek and Banks is addressed to this issue. Despite the title, it is not really a debate in the strict sense of the word, in which a given position is taken by one person, attacked by someone on the other side, and followed by a rebuttal. Rather, the book presents a series of articles, some of which are sympathetic to the "recovered" memory approach and others to the "false" memory approach. In the preface, the authors write: "We tried to hew a middle course, looking for value in all sides." Many of the articles in the book originally appeared in a special issue of Consciousness & Cognition, Volume 3, 1994, the journal which is edited by William Banks, one of the editors of this volume. A major strength of the book is that all the included articles argue their respective positions based on actual experimental data rather than on philosophical biases. The book is divided into four sections, each devoted to a different aspect of the controversy. The comprehensive overview provided by Pezdek and Banks at the beginning of each section provides both a useful guide for the reader and a convenient summary. I will consider each of the sections separately.

I. Childhood Trauma and Memory

As noted by Pezdek and Banks in the introduction to this section, it is very difficult to do controlled studies of sexual abuse, which by its very nature is secretive, private, often repetitive, and often occurs at the hand of a caregiver with whom the child must remain attached. …

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