False Memories

What Does It Mean When a Psychologist Plants False Memories?

False memory generally refers to remembering an event, often a traumatic experience, that is false, but that the person strongly believes to be true. This includes not only the omission of authentic details from an experience, but also the actual creation of memories that are partial or total fabrications. For example, someone may simply believe a traffic light was green when it was, in fact, red. In more extreme cases, there are those who can describe, in detail, being abducted by aliens. It is believed that false memory can occur spontaneously in an individual or that it can arise due to suggestion from an outside source.

The reliability of memory has been widely and heatedly debated for many years. This is especially true when it comes to repressed, recovered and false memory. Repressed memories are thought to be memories that have been unconsciously blocked because they are too traumatic to deal with. Psychologists and psychotherapists have tried various means of accessing or recovering those memories. Despite the fact that Sigmund Freud focused a lot of his early work in psychoanalysis in this area, according to the American Psychological Association, it is not possible to distinguish repressed memories from false ones without outside, corroborating evidence.

Studies have shown that false memories can be encouraged by a therapist or other authority figure through the words used to phrase a question, the detailing of symptoms that correspond with the likelihood of a particular experience, such as sexual abuse, repeated questioning, hypnosis and a variety of other means. In a number of highly sensationalized cases from the 1980s and 1990s involving day-care child abuse, satanic and ritualistic abuse, pornography, cults and long-term abuse of multiple victims, scores of innocent people were convicted based on recovered memories without corroborating evidence. Most were later overturned when it was determined that this event never actually happened, but were instead the result of repeated and suggestive interviewing by therapists, case workers, police and parents.

Everyone is familiar with watching their favorite TV cop show and cheering as the bad guys are tricked into a confession by our hero convincing them that there is evidence against them even when it isn’t true. It’s a different story when it comes to real life, or, at least it should be. With rare exception, psychologists and all healthcare professionals have the best interests of their patients at heart. Unfortunately, in the process of attempting to uncover the root cause of patient’s issues, they inadvertently stumbled upon a kind of unintentional brainwashing. Suggestions made from a perceived authority figure have the power to sometimes create false memories in patients. The process of proving that and attempting to undo some of the resulting damage created a fair amount of acrimony in the mental health community.

A crusader in false memory research, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, University of California, Irvine, remarked, “The one take home message that I have tried to convey in my writings, and classes, and in my TED talk is this: Just because someone tells you something with a lot of confidence and detail and emotion, it doesn’t mean it actually happened. You need independent corroboration to know whether you’re dealing with an authentic memory or something that is a product of some other process.”

While today’s healthcare practitioners are vigilant with regard to the creation of false memories, there are those who wonder if people couldn’t actually be helped by the intentional planting of “helpful” memories or the manipulations of troublesome ones. The ethical considerations to this are considerable, as voiced by Dr. Loftus…

“We should worry about whose memory is next. Memory, like liberty, is a fragile thing.”