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False Memories: How and Why They are Created

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  • Category: Memory

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     Memory is the process in which “our brains are modified and reorganized by our experiences” through the various interactions that take place throughout our existence. [14]    As humans we have the ability to recall many vivid details of our personal experiences, which in itself is a unique phenomenon.  The more we interact with our environment and take in those experiences the more we as human beings change the way in which we perceive the world.  Memories help to determine how we interact with others; develop a perception of ourselves and even how we react to future situations.    This complex process and how it affects the human experiences has been the topic of study throughout history.

      A topic that has been studied extensively by various research professionals is the legitimacy of the mind’s ability to recall traumatic events accurately in many children and adults.  Allegations have been made by adults who suddenly become conscious of any number of traumatic childhood events only to find that the experience was only a dramatic creation of their imagination. In other cases children have given testimony that they believe to be true when in all actuality the child had unknowingly been influenced by a vivid imagination or a suggestive outside influence.  These situations are said to be the result of what researchers call False Memory Syndrome.  [5]

     Studies have uncovered evidence that reveals the fact that some individuals can develop false memories through external influence such as the power of suggestion or in the manner in which they perceive their environment.  In many cases these memories have had a negative impact on the lives of others, in as some situations have led to criminal charges and false imprisonment.  [2] As in the case of Peter Ellis, who spent ten years in prison due to a myriad of allegations that consisted of numerous acts of child abuse, which ultimately led to criminal charges where he was convicted by a jury of his peers and sent to prison based on the graphic testimony of the child in question.  Though convincing at the time of the trial, these allegations turned out to be false and as result Ellis was released from prison.  [3]

     As psychiatric professionals attempt to uncover the source of these situations, several consistent details have surfaced.  In all cases, the accuser truly believed these traumatic experiences occurred and vividly remembered the experience.  In cases where children claim to be abused, law enforcement officials have found they’re facing a huge challenge during the process of investigation.  Several criminal accusations occur where the child is the only eye witness; therefore becomes the subject of an intense interrogation interview.  This process in itself has been known to produce false memories through the power of suggestion, as children are heavily influenced by those in authority.  [3]

     Many of the studies focusing on False Memory Syndrome have taken an extensive look into the process of recovering repressed memories, a special interest for early psychologist Sigmund Freud.   False memories are not uncommon when an adult suddenly becomes conscious of a traumatic event or events that took place during his or her childhood.   Similar to the affects of the interrogating interviews, a these memories were often created by the power of suggestion or some compelling outside influence.  [4]

     For example, in 1986 Nadean Cool, a nursing professional from Wisconsin, had witnessed a traumatizing situation with her daughter and as a result chose to seek professional psychiatric help.  As her treatment progressed the psychologist used various suggestive techniques, such as hypnotism, to dig deeper into Cool’s past so that treatment would likely be successful.  These techniques actually convinced the patient that she had been the victim of numerous accounts of abuse, as well as witnessed the death of her 8 year old friend.  As her psychologist validated that these events had through the power of suggestion, Cool began to deal with the emotional stress that victims of such abuse experience.  After various treatment procedures were implemented, the patient realized the memories were false and the result of questionable therapy.  This specific case resulted in a malpractice suit, as the patient felt she was victimized.  [5]

    False memories most often manifest themselves victims give a verbal account of their personal history to another.  Research studies have placed a special focus on the autobiographical accounts to find some type of commonality between individuals.  This process of verbal interaction is necessary for us to build relationships with family and friends as well as promote a positive mental state of being.  To many psychiatric professionals the thought of something so common being the culprit of false memory manifestations seemed impossible and as a result they reacted with skepticism.  [6]

     In many cases it was uncovered that the false memories were the result of misinformation.  As we interact with others and mentally absorb the experience we become susceptible to information that is lacking truth.  Misinformation can take place when we interact casually interact with family and friends and when we choose to trust those in authority. Through a series of studies conducted on a select group of individuals, Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington Elizabeth Lofton uncovered evidence that identified that many victims were coaxed into vividly recalling situations that had never occurred.  [5]

     In order to accurately study False Memory Syndrome Loftus and her students had to instill some type of false memory into the study group that was mildly traumatic had the experience actually taken place in the person’s past.  The strategy was to plant the childhood memory of being lost in a shopping mall and consisted of details suggesting these individuals had been “lost for an extending period of time, crying, aid and comfort by an elderly women and, finally, reunion with the family.”  [5]  Through a series of tactics 25% of the group studied recalled the fictitious event that had researchers had planted.  [5]  Loftus and her students came to the conclusion that “the paradigm shows a way of instilling false memories and takes a step towards allowing us to understand how this might happen in real-world settings.”  [5]

     Suppressed memories resulting in false memories called for researchers to once again turn to theories once dominating the psychiatric profession.  Sigmund Freud, a renowned psychologist, believed that childhood memories were a vital piece of information about an individual and he placed an emphasis on the interpretation of those memories.  Many modern psychologists believe in his methods today and these methods have come to be known as the “Freudian Approach.”  The psychologist utilizes various techniques that place an intense focus on adults working to uncover repressed memories, as the core belief in Freudian practices is the fact that suppressed childhood memories influences a person’s perception of the environment.  [7]  Studies of False Memory Syndrome has offered evidence that this practice may offer an inaccurate response, as evidence has revealed that information given after an event can alter a person’s perceptions of the actual events.  [4]

     The human imagination has also been shown to cause a person to develop false memories, as individual emotional responses can be extremely elaborate.  Researchers have come to call this particular interference imagination inflation and its concept is that if a person is asked to imagine certain events, they often come to believe they are a reality.  [8]  Daniel Reisberg and Paula Hertel in their book Memory and Emotion stated that when imagination occurs the episode contains three basic elements; “vivid personal images, deeply felt emotions, and physiological experiences.”  [9]

     In a 1996 Gary, Manning, Loftus and Sherman conducted a study of imagination inflation on a group of adults to measure the probability of false memories occurring through the power of suggestion.  Participants were given a list of unlikely events and asked if any of those circumstances had taken place in their past.  The study group was then split into two groups, the first being the control group and the second group went through a series of controlled tests.  The second group was asked to identify at least half of the improbable situations and use their imagination to visualize the event had actually taken place.  The results of the study showed that during the second interview those who had imagined certain events had taken place in their life were more likely to believe the memory was real.  [4]

     Special focus has been placed on the practices of law enforcement and the validity of the information resulting in extensive questioning.  Looking at interrogations in particular, studies have shown that imagination inflation has played a major factor in providing law enforcement false eyewitness accounts.  These studies have shown that in this particular circumstance that there is a significant difference in delayed and immediate testimony.  The length of time between the incident and the testimony is crucial, as memories are less vivid as time passes.  Researchers also found that “young children, especially preschoolers, are significantly more suggestible than older adults.”  [4]  Leading experts in False Memory Syndrome suggest that once a child reaches school age they are less influenced by suggestibility, however when a person grows older he or she is likely to revert and once again be susceptible to outside suggestions.  [4]

     Practicing psychiatric professionals utilize several techniques that rely on the imagination to recall suppressed memories to identify the underlying cause that shaped the patient’s current situation.  In the cases of suppressed traumatic memories some psychiatrists believe that patients must unlock these memories and understand the influence they have had on their life.  [4]  The techniques consist of planting a vivid picture in the patient’s mind, such as “how things might have looked” or possibly recover various “auditory images of how things might have sounded.”   [10]

     There is a continued debate as to the reliability of these procedures, as some professionals do not believe that an accurate account of past memories can be given after lying dormant for several years.  Other skeptics believe these tactics are misleading as patients develop a confidence as to the legitimacy of these false memories due to the fact that the recollection occurred in a scientific environment.  [11]  Psychotherapy helps patients “develop new ways to construe past and current memories,” which requires the retrieval of past memories,” however leading authorities warn therapists to pay careful attention to their methods, as it is quite possible that the techniques imposed on the patient have a tendency to influence the results. [8]

     Quite commonly many individuals claim to have episodic memories that occurred during the first year of life, though research has shown that this is quite unlikely. Recollections of this nature have come to be defined as an “impossible memory” and skeptics have validated their theory by illustrating the brain’s level of development during childhood.  According to Elizabeth Loftus, memories of this nature are impossible because the hippocampus plays a key role in the process of memory and at the early stages in life it has not reached the level of maturity required to store memories that can be retrieved as an adult.  [5]

     Impossible memories often occur in children, as their thought processes are less refined than those of a full grown adult.   Some children claim to have memories of elaborate events that took place such as hot air balloon rides or flying through the sky.  Some experts believe that this elaboration is due to the fact that children are encouraged to play and pretend, which creates a world of fantasy for the child.  This fantasizing during childhood suggests that children are very prone to becoming confused when drawing on their memories of past events.  In early studies of the prevalence of impossible memories several subjects claimed to have taken part in historical events, such as Prince Charles wedding to Dianna, and in all actuality the possibility could not have presented itself.  [12]

     Sigmund Freud authored several articles that concentrated on the human ability to develop early memories, as he had taken a special interest in the cognitive abilities of infants and what he defined as “infantile amnesia.”  [13]  He believed that as a child left the stage of infancy his or her experiences enter into a “shroud of oblivion” and as a result creates the necessity to recall suppressed memories later in life.  [13]  Contemporary theories are a bit more scientific than those of times passed; however the main concept remains the same – as humans memory allows us to guide current and future actions based upon our previous experiences.  [14]

     The human brain is complex and as we store various memories our brain has systems that process and categorize each experience according to the way it is perceived.  A general comprehension of the mental functionality of memory can be defined by identifying two major categories of memories, the conscious and the unconscious.  Declarative or explicit memories refer to the individual’s “conscious, intentional recollection of some previous episode, most commonly reflected in recall and recognition.”  [15]  Declarative memory requires that one can consciously recall any information absorbed during a previous experience and is comprised of the “working memory, episodic memory and semantic memory.”  [15]

     Supporting the belief that the human brain is incapable of early childhood memories, Abraham Myerson, in his book The Foundations of Personality believes that children can process their experiences productively; however the length of time these memories spent in a declarative state is extremely limited.  Young children process memories mostly through intuitive thoughts, or impression. Myerson also believes that until the age of four or five, the level in which children can process the external influences of their surroundings is low, as well as the ability to accurately recall memories accurately.  Children most often illustrate their ability to perceive outside influences through the act of imitation; however these responses do not instill themselves permanently and create a vivid memory.  [6]

     As the declarative or explicit memory categorizes our conscious, the non-declarative and implicit memory defines the unconscious aspect of the memory processes.  Implicit memory can be defined in simple terms as “memory without awareness.”  [15]  Implicit memories influence our actions and our perceptions of our environment, as they have a significant impact on our awareness, thoughts, or actions.  These unconscious memories can also be attributed to some previous experience.  Studies have suggested that the implicit memory is extremely complex and is not comprised of a single system.  Science have proven that implicit memory is a collection of various systems that has a profound influence over the way we perceive our environment.  [10]

     Looking again at early theories, Freud placed a heavy focus on the role of implicit memories and how these memories affect us in our day to day lives.  He believed that we as humans were in “captivity of our own unconscious and we are not free to escape without special measures.”  [13]  The psychologist also stressed that the unconscious was extremely powerful and greatly influenced the way we interacted with the world.  Because of this influence Freud believed that implicit memories “keeps us unfree” and limits us from actually being free to experience life in a positive fashion.  [16]

     Today psychiatric professionals supporting the validity of suppressed memories have come under attack, as those supporting the entire concept of False Memory Syndrome have publicly discredited the theory.  Described as one of the most radical voices supporting the validity of false memories is the False Memory Foundation, formed in 1994 by Dr. Pamela Freyd , has actively requested that the regulation of therapists be reviewed and strict regulations imposed.  Freyd believes that the therapy industry is “infested with charlatans who convince their clients of memories that do not exist.”  [1]  Opposing viewpoints supporting the therapy industry lashed back at this blatant accusation by describing the foundation as “hostile and leave little room for thoughtful conversation.”  [1]

     The aggressive fight against questionable therapy practices by the False Memory Syndrome has infuriated many practicing therapists, as these accusations have painted the picture that all therapists’ treatment methods are suspect.  Therapists believe that this proactive approach to discredit therapists credibility has actually harmed the victims of actual abuse by “perpetuating the stereotype that women are gullible and believe everything their therapist tell them.”  [1]

     Most importantly therapists believe that the debate has taken the focus off of the actual abuse victims, as actual abusers still outnumber those who have reported false memories.  [1]  Freyd admits that the frequency of abuse is still a concern and that too often these situations remain hidden, causing severe trauma that causes victims to react by repressing the horrific memories.  She also admits that within the foundation itself it’s difficult to separate the actual victims of false accusations from those in denial or intentionally lying about their child’s accusations.  [1]

     The False Memory Foundation claims that False Memory Syndrome due to questionable therapy practices occurs most often in women between the ages of 30 and 40 seeking psychological help for “unspecified depression.”  [1]  These accusations go on to report that most therapists encourage the patient to find the root cause of the depressive disorder and as a result of the methods imposed patients become convinced that some type of childhood abuse has taken place in the past.  The foundation, among other of recovered memory therapy believes that the therapists’ most common explanation for the suppressed memory is disassociated and this diagnosis has no scientific proof to support it.  [1]

     The American Medical Association published an article that supported the allegations of the lack of evidence supporting hypnosis, a common technique used to recover suppressed memories.  This particular study reported that memories could be distorted based upon various impressions and that obtaining any information through hypnosis provides little accuracy and reliability. The AMA report also concluded that it was merely impossible for the therapist to distinguish between the true and false recollection.  [1]

     Though opinions vary on the validity of False Memory Syndrome, it is impossible to ignore the fact that studies have shown that false memories can manifest in children and adults for a variety of reasons.  As research continues to surface supporting the susceptibility of human perception professionals must take an in depth look as to the root cause of False Memory Syndrome and the external influences being imposed on the victims.  These false accounts of the past not only victimize the patient, in many cases innocent lives of family and friends have been traumatically altered without just cause.  Psychiatric professionals must work together to find a solution, as this syndrome questions the integrity of the therapy industry and discredits the testimony of those who may have actually been traumatically abused.  The number of actual abuse victims outnumbers those whose memories manifest out of pure suggestion; therefore, measures must be taken that holds the perpetrator accountable.


[1]. (1994.). When a Buried Truth Wants out – Is it Real?. .

[2] Lampinen, J. M., Odegard, T. N. & Bullington, J. L. (2003). Qualities of Memories for Performed and Imagined Actions. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17, 881-893.

[3] Strange, D. G. M. & Sutherland, R. (2003). Drawing Out Children’s False Memories. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17, 607-619.

[4] Eisen, M., Quas, J. A. & Goodman, G. S. (2002). Memory and suggestibility in the forensic interview. Mahwah, N.J: L. Erlbaum Associates.

[5] Loftus, E. F. (1997). Creating Childhood Memories. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 11, S75±S86.

[6] French, L. S. R. & Garry, M. (2006). Discussion Affects Memory for True and False Childhood Events. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20, 671-680.

[7] Hyman, I. E. H. T. H. & Billings, F. J. (.). False Memories of Childhood Experiences. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 9, 181-197.

[8] Paddock, J. R., Noel, M., Terranova, S., Eber, H. W., Manning, C. & Loftus, E. F. (1999). Imagination Inflation and the Perils of Guided Visualization. The Journal of Psychology, 133 (6), 581-595.

[9] Reisberg, D. & Hertel, P. (2004). Memory and emotion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[10] Brainerd, C. J. & Reyna, V. F. (2005). The science of false memory. New York: Oxford University Press.

[11] Paddock, J. R., Joseph, A. L., Chan, F. M., Terranova, S., Manning, C. & Loftus, E. F. (1998). When Guided Visualization Procedures may BackFire: Imagination Inflation and Predicting Individual Differences in Suggestibility. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 12 (S63 – S75).

[12] Eichenbaum, H. (1999). Conscious awareness, memory and the hippocampus. Nature Neuroscience, 2 (9), 775.

[13] Zilboorg, G. (1951). Sigmund Freud; his exploration of the mind of man. New York: Scribner.

[14] Bly, B. M. & Rumelhart, D. E. (1999). Cognitive science. San Diego, Calif: Academic Press.

[15] Adams, H. E. & Sutker, P. B. (1984). Comprehensive handbook of psychopathology. New York: Plenum Press.

[16] Missig, J. (2005). Implicit Memory versus False Memory. Memory Phenomena & Mechanisms, 85 (445).

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