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Posted Friday, July 17, 1998


WE REPRODUCE with permission this article from the latest issue of Skeptic magazine. It has a bearing on the problems of researching Real History


More Doubts on Recovered Memory Therapy


The Royal College of Psychiatrists in London announced in April that a comprehensive review of the literature on recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse has concluded that when "memories" are recovered after long periods of amnesia, particularly when questionable techniques were used to recover them, there is a high probability that the memories are false.

Published in the April 1998 issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, the review article by Professor Sydney Brandon and colleagues presents the conclusions of an overview of recovered memories and the techniques used to recover them.

A GROWING BODY of research indicates that memory is fallible and vulnerable to suggestion; and that suggestibility and confabulation increase with the length of time between the events and later attempts to recall it. The authors conclude that individual autobiographical memory is unreliable, and that people are often unable to remember considerable parts of their past experiences.



Expectations and beliefs can color people's recollections, and gaps in memory will be filled to create a "life story" which they find satisfying.



Expectations and beliefs can color people's recollections, and gaps in memory will be filled to create a "life story" which they find satisfying.

Therapists may use a number of techniques, some of which are regularly employed in orthodox therapy but are questionable when used as 'memory recovery' procedures. These include:

 Check Lists: there is no evidence that any check lists, syndromes, symptoms or signs indicate with any degree of reliability that an individual has been sexually abused in the remote past.

  Drug-induced abreaction: it is inappropriate to use repeated abreaction to "trawl" for traumatic events. There is considerable anecdotal clinical evidence that in repeated sessions patients will eventually generate material which is a product of fantasy. Even in a single session of abreaction great caution is required.

  Hypnosis: this technique has been shown to be unreliable as a means of eliciting memories of past events, and such "memories" are no longer admitted as legal testimony.

  Age regression: there is no evidence for the efficacy of this technique, nor can it be shown that the subject's "memories" actually do regress to the target age.

  Dream interpretation: there is no evidence that dreams are a "royal road" to historical accuracy; and interpretations usually reflect the training and personal convictions of the therapist.


Imagistic and "feelings" work and art therapy: although many of these techniques are applications of accepted clinical practice, they can be powerfully suggestive and induce trance-like states. The beliefs of the therapist are the determining factor in how a patient's production are shaped.

  Survivors' groups: whilst these can be supportive, the practice of mixing those who clearly remember abuse with those who are suspected by the therapist of having repressed their memories has been strongly criticised because of the risk of suggestion and contagion among group members.

The authors conclude that memory enhancement techniques do not actually enhance memory, and that there is evidence that they can be powerful and dangerous methods of persuasion.

Many of the memories "recovered" by these measures refer to events in the early months and years of life, which fall within the period of infantile amnesia, and must be regarded as implausible for that reason.

The evidence suggests that all the techniques outlined above can create entirely new and false memories, not only experimentally but also in clinical practice.


For more information write: The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 17 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PG; Fax 0171 245 1231; e-mail:

 © 1998. Reprinted with permission from Skeptic magazine, Vol. 6, #1.

For further information contact: Michael Shermer, P.O. Box 338, Altadena, Ca 91001; 626/794-3119;

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