When 21-year-old nurse Carol Felstead went to her doctor complaining of repeated headaches, she wasn’t just prescribed painkillers. Instead, she was referred for psychotherapy that would ultimately involve hypnosis to “recover” so-called repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. Carol subsequently came to believe that her parents were the leaders of a Satanic cult and that her mother murdered another of her children, sat Carol on top of the body and then set fire to the family home.
But these allegations were untrue and the memories they were based upon were incorrect. Today, almost 30 years on, “recovered memory therapy” has been discredited by the scientific and academic community and is known to implant false memories, apparent memories for events that never actually happened.
Experimental psychologists have repeatedly demonstratedthe ease with which false memories can be implanted in a sizeable proportion of the population under well-controlled laboratory conditions. But it is also undoubtedly the case that such false memories can arise spontaneously as well as in the context of psychotherapy.
Although we are typically not consciously aware of it, we often have to judge whether an apparent memory is real. Is it based upon mental events that were purely internally generated (for example, by imagination or a dream) or based upon events which really took place in the external world?
Implanting false memories
One of the techniques that has been shown to result in false memories is asking people to imagine events that never actually took place. It appears that, eventually and especially in people with good imaginations, the memory of the imagined event is misinterpreted as a memory for a real event. The use of hypnotic regression is a particularly powerful means to implant false memories.
The correct chronology in Carol Felstead’s case is as follows: there was another daughter who was ill from birth and she died in hospital in 1962 from problems associated with a defective heart. The house fire was a tragic accident that occurred in 1963 and made the front page news of the local newspaper. But Carol was born in 1964. These events happened before she was alive. Carol later falsely claimed to have given birth to six babies who were meant to have been conceived and ritually sacrificed by the Satanic cult. Her medical records show that Carol was never pregnant.
Carol cut off contact with her family, changed her name to Carole Myers, and died in 2005, aged 41, in circumstances that are still unexplained. Prior to receiving psychotherapy, she was a bright and intelligent young woman with her life ahead of her. Her story highlights the inherent dangers associated with unproven psycho-therapeutic techniques which seek to recover putative repressed memories of childhood trauma, in particular childhood sexual abuse.
The latter is an abhorrent crime that can have devastating consequences for victims. Yet, while we must not lose sight of this, it is also important to remember that no one benefits from false allegations. Victims of childhood sexual abuse have difficulty forgetting –- not remembering -– what happened. False memory also has serious consequences and can lead to family breakdown and miscarriages of justice.
False memories aren’t limited to cases of alleged childhood abuse. The field of anomalistic psychology attempts to propose and, where possible, empirically test explanations for bizarre experiences based purely upon accepted psychological principles. Based upon my own anomalistic psychology research and that of others, there is little doubt in my mind that sincerely held bizarre memories of past lives and alien abductions are best explained as being false memories. Such memories can sometimes be distressing for those that hold them but rarely cause distress for others.
Unfortunately, this is not true of Satanic abuse claims. For many people, it is all too easy to believe, even in the absence of convincing evidence, that memories of childhood sexual abuse may be repressed and then recovered during psychotherapy. This is partly because it is sadly true that such abuse is a lot more common than was once accepted.
But it is also because Freud’s pseudoscientific influence lingers on. The psychoanalytic notion of repression is that when something extremely traumatic happens an automatic involuntary defence mechanism kicks in that pushes the memory for the trauma into an inaccessible part of the mind. But this is simply not supported by the empirical evidence.
The only definitive way to tell false memories from real ones is by reference to independent external evidence. Subjectively, false memories can be every bit as detailed and compelling as real ones. The best that can be hoped for is that, by appealing to external evidence, one can convince the victim that their memories do not reflect reality thus converting them into what psychologists refer to as “non-believed memories”.
In the case of Carol Felstead, it would have been a very easy matter to have checked her claims with the documented historical record and to have established that they were delusions. Instead, those that treated her uncritically accepted her account and fuelled those delusions.
Allegations of childhood abuse should always listened to and examined carefully. But we must treat stories based on “recovered memories” with the level of scepticism they deserve.
Christopher French is a member of the Professional and Scientific Advisory Board of the British False Memory Society.
Authors: The Conversation