Memories develop starting at birth and continue to develop throughout the life cycle as we age. The brain remembers by association, strengthening neural connections through repetition (“use it or lose it principle”) (Willingham, 2007). Research has shown that, although memory is often considered to be a singular ability in and of its self, it is actually a process of at least three inter-related functions: encoding, storage, and retrieval. The first step to creating a memory is encoding, a crucial step involving the conversion of the perceived item of interest into a construct that can be stored, and then later recalled through retrieval processes, from either short- or long-term memory at some point in the future. The process of storage occurs between encoding and retrieval, when the memory exists only as a possibility for remembrance. (Arbuthnott, et al., 2001) Memories are, in a sense, us; they chart our life details. There are several types of memory processes that deal with differing aspects of how memories are formed. Short- and long-term memory are the two most common forms people tend to recognize, but there are others, such as associative, elaborative, and autobiographical, that come into play.
The study of memory in early childhood is centered around development as it relates to the cognitive self, and a particularly important aspect of early memory centers on childhood amnesia, specifically the fading ability to recall events that occur during early childhood. Although children may remember events prior to ages 3-4, those memories also tend to fade with time as we age. (Goleman, 1993; Willingham, 2007) Most adults remember very little prior to age 3 or 4, since this is the age at which our cognitive memory first begins to truly function. Prior to that age, the cognitive and language skills that are necessary for the processing of external events are not yet developed fully enough to allow this processing to occur, which is essential to the storing of events as memories. (Kihlstrom, 1994) As aging occurs and cognitive and language skills improve, new knowledge is also being acquired, as well as the establishment of a sense of self. During the aging process in children, major developments occur in the expansion of memory, perhaps with less processing being required to enable long-term storage. According to a study published by the New York Times, memories that are autobiographical in nature begin when children learn about themselves and their early years through their parents. (Goleman, 1993) Over time, as we navigate through the aging process, some memories fade, some are lost, and others are distorted as a natural result of the progression of time and aging.
Traditionally, faulty memory has often been associated with either the elderly or those who have suffered a traumatic brain injury, but the ongoing research that has occurred over the last couple of decades tells a different story. There are certainly instances where people’s memories are obviously faulty, and often this is due to such factors as dementia, Alzheimer’s, concussion, or some other such factor exerting an influence on the brain’s ability to manifest an effective and accurate recall of prior events. However, the distortion of memories, from the changing of details to the outright planting of false memories, has become an area of real interest and research due to the fact that the accuracy of memories can have much greater implications than just those that directly affect the individual in their quest for resolution of a particular psychological issue. The likelihood of false memories, in conjunction with the fact that there is still much about the mind that we do not yet understand, make it a dangerous prospect for the therapist to suggest too much. The evidence exists that people can be led to believe that they have experienced events in their lives that are patently untrue, or at the least, highly unlikely to ever have occurred. (Loftus, 2004) One particular study showed that even a brief exposure to a false memory of a childhood event serves to boost their confidence that the event actually occurred. (Sharman, Powell, 2012; Garry, et al., 1996; Sharman, et al., 2005) This was attributed to a phenomenon called imagination inflation. The study participants were asked to rate their confidence levels on a range of childhood events that occurred prior to 10 years of age. They were then asked two weeks later to imagine events that they indicated did not occur, and rate their confidence of the event occurrences a second time. The confidence ratings of the events that did not happen were rated higher in confidence of their occurrence the second time around than the events that actually occurred, which were used as control events.
There are several techniques that have been used to attempt to determine the validity of false memories through “planting” of events that were false and never actually occurred, including hypnosis, guided imagery/imagination, dream interpretation, and picture cuing, and all proved successful at inducing false memories in research study participants in statistically significant numbers. One of the earliest studies that specifically attempted to plant false memories for an entire event used a technique that came to be called the “lost in the mall” technique, which utilized stories about events that happened to participants as related by their parents, and included one wholly false story that was verified as having never occurred, usually lost in a mall, or, alternatively, spilling punch on a bride’s parents at a wedding or having a serious accident. Based on the results of a series of interviews that utilized memory recovery techniques, 20%-25% of the study participants confirmed a memory of these false events even though they never actually occurred. It was also determined that these false memories exhibited high levels of detail and emotional responses in those that developed them. (Laney, Loftus, 2013)
Scoboria et al. (2004) posited a model for autobiographical beliefs and memories that, based on their research, indicated the memories, thoughts, and beliefs concerning plausibility of an event are of a “nested” format. For a person to remember an event, they necessarily have to believe that it occurred, meaning that the memory itself is nested within confidence. It also needs to be personally plausible, so confidence is nested within personal plausibility. The event has to be plausible generally, so personal plausibility is nested within general plausibility. While the research shows that false beliefs and memories will increase due to repeated exposures, brief exposure to false events does not increase confidence or implant false memories. (Sharman, Powell, 2012)
The research on false memory has firmly established that people can be led to believe that they have experienced events that have never actually occurred. Not only can these false memories be wrapped in exquisite detail and sensory associations of recollection, conveying all the characteristics of being the genuine article, but they can be extremely far-fetched in their subject matter such that they are extremely unlikely to be true, yet people will still insist on having experienced them. The consequences of false memories can have far-reaching, and often unintended, consequences. There are documented cases of people having spent decades of their lives in prison based on testimony that relied on what turned out to be an instance of false memory, and were only exonerated because of DNA evidence. While this is an extreme example of the consequences of reliance on memory to be infallible, it clearly illustrates that memory is fluid, malleable, and completely vulnerable to improper influence and subsequent dubious recall. As a Clinical Psychology student, I previously held to the belief that a memory which is uncovered during therapy is more than likely to be true. After all, why would a profession devoted to helping people end up doing harm by implanting false memories? In my opinion, it is not intentional harm on the part of the therapist but, rather, a misuse of techniques which can, and sometimes does, lead to disastrous consequences. Knowing that memories can become twisted and confused should be reason enough to become skeptical of any method of regression treatment or therapy.
Arbuthnott, K. D., Arbuthnott, D. W., Rossiter, L. (2001). “Guided imagery and memory: implications for Psychotherapists”. Journal of Counseling Psychology Vol. 48, No. 2, 123-132. Retrieved from Ebscohost, November 17, 2016.
Durbin, P. G., Ph.D. Beware false memories in regression hypnotherapy. Retrieved November 16, 2016, from http://alchemyinstitute.com/false-memory.html
Goleman, D. (1993, April 6). Studying the secrets of childhood memory. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com
Kihlstrom, J. E. (1994). “Hypnosis, delayed recall and the principles of memory”. The International Journal of Clinical & Experimental Hypnosis. 1994, Vol. XLII, No. 4, 337-344. Retrieved from Ebscohost, November 15, 2016.
Laney, C., Loftus, E. F. (2013). “Recent advances in false memory research”. South African Journal of Psychology 43(2) 137-146. Retrieved from Ebscohost, November 17, 2016.
Loftus, Elizabeth F. (2004). ”Memories of things unseen”. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2004. Vol. 13, No. 4, 145-147. Retrieved from Ebscohost, November 15, 2016.
Sharman, S. J., Powell, M. B. (2012). “Do cognitive interview instructions contribute to false beliefs and memories?”. Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling. 10: 114-124 (2013).
Willingham, D. T. (2007). Cognition: The thinking animal (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson.
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