Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The False Memory Wars: A Short Primer

Do you remember the false memory wars?
Probably not,  but I do.  Its effects continue to linger in a way that troubles me. 
This was a “controversy” that consumed the field of trauma therapy throughout the 90’s
It did incredible damage to the field of trauma therapy.   Therapists and patients alike were victimized by the charges of “the false memory foundation (FMSF),” that patients who were being treated by either misguided or malicious therapists were being guided to “mis-remember” childhood
events of sexual violence perpetrated against them.  Therapists lost their licenses,  patients lost their nerve,  and the whole field of trauma treatment contracted in the face of the onslaught.

Unfortunately the media embraced wholeheartedly and uncritically the charges of the FMSF.  There was a shocking lack of balance in the coverage of this controversy.

Interestingly it took the trauma of 911 and the treatment of psychological victims of that catastrophe to bring the field back to respectability.  Trauma treatment programs proliferated after 911.  Now trauma was and is about terrorism and war,  not sexual abuse.

The phenomena that was being questioned by the FMSF was the way some individuals who in the course of therapy,  or indeed just in the course of life, would be blindsided by previously unremembered events from their childhood of savage abuse usually at the hands of trusted caretakers or other family members.  Jane Smiley, in her wonderful Novel  A Thousand Acres has a wonderful description of the phenomena of being struck by such a memory.  Jane Smiley does this so artfully that the reader is “assaulted” by the information much as the character is.

How can such a thing happen?  Being literally assaulted in living color by a previously unremembered event.

We all know how unreliable our memories can be.  I could swear that I hid my expensive jewelery  in the freezer.  Why isn’t it there??  Didn’t my oldest daughter walk at 9 months?  I distinctly remember that she did.  These might be distorted, they might be wishful thinking, or they might not.  Plenty of psychological research has establish that memory deteriorates over time.  Eyewitnesses to crime are notoriously bad witnesses. This is established science.

What isn’t so well accepted and understood is that traumatic memory is different.  Through a mechanism call “dissociation” child victims of horror, torture, abuse, betrayal find a magical way to cope.  Adaptation is well served by filing away, sequestering these memories, severing them from the mainstream of experience so as to be able to go on, grow up, continue to stay attached to important attachment figures who might also be perpetrators. By the way there is neuroscience to back up this understanding of "dissociation."

When it is safe,  sometime in adulthood these “dissociated” memories can return unbidden.  And when they return they are intact—they haven’t degraded at all.  The smell of the room, the smell of the perpetrator,  the texture of the rug,  the cracks in the ceiling, they are all there.

This is the nature of traumatic memory.  And almost always these are unwelcome events, the return of the repressed.  The adult individual doubts their veracity, disowns them,  tries to forget, hides them from the therapist.  I have never known a victim of childhood abuse who didn’t try to run as far away from these memories as they could.  Trauma therapy is a torturous enterprise because the memories are so unwelcome,  so painful, at times almost unbearable.

 It is not like my memories of where I hid my jewelry.

Which is not to say that there are not unscrupulous or poorly trained therapists who prime the pump and  solicit “false memories.”  There are also individuals who present a false narrative for some secondary gain in psychotherapy.  Those are not so difficult to spot.

There have been a few and pretty small studies that have sought corroboration for their trauma patients narrative and have found a high rate of  veracity.  But for me the acid test has always been,  is the patient getting better as you lend them your unqualified support in their attempt to remember.  If the answer is “yes”  that’s all the corroboration that I need.


  1. Dr. May -

    This is fascinating, as was the previous post about "Galileo's Dream."

    I wonder why certain memories are so vivid, particularly those associated with trauma, while memory of more mundane events is opaque? Do chemical triggers sear memories of intensely emotional events into the brain? Or could it be we revisit these memories more frequently, even if it's during a relatively brief time between an event itself and the mind's commitment of that particular memory to a distant compartment?

    Not to prattle, but Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's book "NurtureShock" discusses how the brain stores short-term memory as long term memory, and also interconnects disparate memories, in particular phases of sleep. The authors raise this in the context of describing how children's and teens' lack of sleep affects scholastic performance as well as weight. But the notion of going to sleep having not remembered something, then waking up enlightened, is striking. Do you think a similar process applies to the instant "assault" of a traumatic memory? Or is some completely different dynamic at work?

    The blog is terrific and thought provoking. Keep up the good work.


  2. such a thoughtful comment merits a thoughtful reply, david.

    as i understand it, and my understanding is somewhat limited, memories associated with trauma are stored in a different "file" than non-traumatic memory. regular memory is filed in the hippocampus, traumatic memory in the amygdala, which is an area of the brain that is non-linguistic, emotional, body-based, etc. thus
    "remembering" trauma is an intrusive, overwhelming experience, often beyond words or concepts, and physical, with phantom pain and other somatic experiences part of the picture.
    the storage system, you might say, explains the difference in the phenomenology of remembering.

    about sleep: the best i can do there, is that there is some "processing" that goes on in sleep which enhances memory. i know from my own experience, the less i sleep the less i can remember anything!