Identifying False Memories

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Reader’s Question

I have not participated in any therapy involving memories I have of abuse as an adult. How does one distinguish between memories that may be false and those which are real? Do false memories have certain common denominators? These memories were written down in my journal at the time, and my memories are exactly as I described them at the time.

Psychologist’s Reply

This is an excellent question. It is very difficult to answer, as evidenced by the status of this question in therapist-licensing disputes. The highest area of vulnerability to a therapist is in ‘recovered memories’. More therapists have lost their licenses or been sued by helping clients ‘recover memories’ than in any other area.

In therapy, it doesn’t matter if your memory represents the forensic truth or not. In therapy, we strive to understand how your perception of events have shaped you. If you discover along the way that you misperceived an event, then that is just more grist for the mill. Does that mean that our memories are false? No, just that we perceive things differently when we are in an emotionally charged situation as opposed to observing such a situation. For example, a child in a car accident may not remember the time of day, or the make of the car you were in, or which direction the other car came from. The child would remember the sounds of the crash, the smells of the crash, the taste of fear, the look on your face, the pain, etc. He would remember the things that were important to him at that time. None of those memories are false. But if you ask that child about the objective details of the crash, he wouldn’t know or he might invent something to satisfy the questioner. How could you tell? By corroborating the witness, as usual.

Forensic examiners will tell you that eye witnesses are not reliable for this reason. I am not advising people to doubt their memories, only to be careful about how to apply their memories. Let me give another example. You’re walking down the block and you see a man forcing a kid into the back seat of his SUV. The kid cries out “mommy, mommy, I don’t want to go!” Your first impulse is to…what?

If you said you want to go rescue the kid, then notice that you have given the man the attribute of being a kidnapper. But what if the same situation were changed just a bit? Say the man is the kid’s father. The kid overslept and is tantrumming because his father is taking him to school on time. Would your reaction to the same situation be different if you had that knowledge beforehand?

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Our perceptions and our preconceptions color what we do and what we remember. In therapy, it is all about your perception. In real life, it may be best to seek verification of your memories before accusing someone of something. Once a memory is corroborated, then you can have much more confidence in your convictions and you may wish to do something about it. Test this theory out. If you have someone who was there at the time, ask open ended questions about what they saw happen. Keep an open mind. You can always come back to your original conclusion once it’s verified.

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