False Memory

Memory is the mental faculty of retaining and recalling past experiences. A
repressed memory is one that is retained in the sub conscious mind, where
one is not aware of it but where it can still affect both conscious thoughts
and behavior.

When memory is distorted or confabulated, the result can be what has been
called the False Memory Syndrome: a condition in which a person’s identity
and interpersonal relationships are entered around a memory of traumatic
experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly
believes. Note that the syndrome is not characterized by false memories as
such. We all have memories that are inaccurate. Rather, the syndrome may be
diagnosed when the memory is so deeply ingrained that it orients the
individual’s entire personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts
of other adaptive behaviors. The analogy to personality disorder is
intentional. False memory syndrome is especially destructive because the
person assiduously avoids confrontation with any evidence that might
challenge the memory. Thus it takes on a life of its own, encapsulated and
resistant to correction. The person may become so focused on the memory that
he or she may be effectively distracted from coping with real problems in
his or her life.

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— John F. Kihlstrom, Ph.D.

There are many models which try to explain how memory works. Nevertheless,
we do not know exactly how memory works. One of the most questionable models
of memory is the one which assumes that every experience a person has had is
‘recorded’ in memory and that some of these memories are of traumatic events
too terrible to want to remember. These terrible memories are locked away in
the sub conscious mind, i.e. repressed, only to be remembered in adulthood
when some triggering event opens the door to the unconscious. And, both
before and after the repressed memory is remembered, it causes physical and
mental disorders in a person.

Some people have made an effort to explain their pain, even cancer, as
coming from repressed memories of incest in the body. Scientists have
studied related phenomenon such as people whose hands bleed in certain
religious settings. Presumably such people, called stigmatics, “are not
revealing unconscious memories of being crucified as young children, but
rather are demonstrating a fascinating psychogenic anomaly that springs from
their conscious fixation on the suffering of Christ. Similarly, it is
possible that conscious fixation on the idea that one was sexually abused
might increase the frequency of some physical symptoms, regardless of
whether or not the abuse really occurred.”(Lindsay & Read, 1994)
This view of memory has two elements: (1) the accuracy element and (2) the
causal element. The reason this model is questionable is not because people
don’t have unpleasant or painful experiences they would rather forget, nor
is it claiming that children often experience both wonderful and brutal
things for which they have no conceptual or linguistic framework and hence
are incapable of understanding them, much less relating it to others. It is
questionable because this model maintains that because (a) one is having
problems of functioning as a healthy human being and (b) one remembers being
abused as a child that therefore (A) one was abused as a child and (B) the
childhood abuse is the cause of one’s adulthood problems.

There is no evidence that supports the claim that we remember everything
that we experience. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to support the
claim that it is impossible for us to even attend to all the perceptual
elements of any given experience, much less to recall them all. There is no
evidence to support the claim that all memories of experiences happened as
they remembered to have happened or that they have even happened at all. And
there is no evidence to support the claim that subjective certainty about
the accuracy of memories or the vividness of memories significantly
correlates with accuracy. Finally, the claim of a causal connection between
abuse and health or behavior does not warrant concluding that ill health,
mental or physical, is a ’sign’ of having been abused.

This model is the basis for a number of pseudoscientific works on child
abuse by self-proclaimed


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