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loftus75 August 12th, 2004 06:16 AM

Recovered memory
For some years now the debate relating to recovered memory has been raging between various groups, both on a professional and non-professional level. On one side we have those that would argue memories are reliable indicators of a persons past experience, on the other side we have the argument that memory is a construct which is susceptible to corruption. From my own daily experience, I am aware that when revisiting places from my childhood, much of what I thought constructed a view, a building or a route is often not as I remember it. On a professional level I recall the experiments I carried out while at university which illustrated the ease in which memory could be corrupted.

From a cognitive stance, I would be interested to hear what other professional's make of this debate.

I should, declare my own position on this. I share Elizabeth Loftus's view, that memories are not reliable, yet we continue to give eye witnesses in our courts quite a lot of weight and many members of the general public do believe that repressed memories can be recovered, and that these memories are in fact valid.

Questions that arise from this debate, such as, when a patient reports they have been to a therapist that practices RMT, (Recovered Memory Therapy), and as result have recovered a memory of being abused as a child. Or when a client reports they have recurring dreams of their childhood which show them in some frightening situation. Just how much credence do others working in CT give to the reported memory or dream?

Again I should declare that I would be more inclined to look at reasons for disturbed sleep in the case of dreams, and I would be sceptical of any recovered memory, though I would not necessarily completely discount it.

I have heard arguments that say it really isn't important whether the memory is accurate, it's the clients view of their own reality that matters. Fine, except there are very real consequences for families in these events. Besides this, how sure can we be that it is the clients memory and not a product of suggestion?

Finally I should say, I'm not trying to light any fires here, I am interested in a debate not a professional fight:) I say this because I know that this subject can create a lot of heat. I also believe this debate effects everyone working in the mental health field as we rely heavily on self reporting and our clients memory of events, whether we are looking at phobia's, stress or any other dysfunctional behaviour, the reliability of their statements is vital to the direction and outcomes of the therapeutic processes.

loftus75 September 28th, 2004 09:30 AM

Re: Recovered memory
It's been some time since I posted this subject and I find it interesting that after some 100 viewings there has been no responses. Is this because the subject is simply too hot to handle or is there some other reason?

As a psychologist memory is one of those areas which I spent a great deal of time studying during my student period. I recall many hours of debate on the structures, schema's and memory exercises which sometimes divided and sometimes united groups within the debate. Yet it would seem many people here have little to say on the subject.

How our memory works determines its reliability and the choices we make in the present and future. We do not rewrite the book each time we experience a new event, rather we use our present experience to augment our past experiences and memories to make future decisions. If human memory could be accessed like a hard drive on a computer or video than the question about memory would have a straightforward answer. However we know that memory does not work this way. Current theory would suggest that memory is made up of a variety of senses and spread throughout the cerebral cortex, and that any of our senses, smell, sight, sound taste or touch can trigger memories. Equally our memories can change and can easily be corrupted by time and by events. Even the way we interpret our own memories can deviate from the hard facts.

Of course this area of psychology raises questions about therapy in general, particularly for those coming from the Freudian view. It also raises questions about the nature of therapy, it's role in society and it's goal for the individual.

I don't believe this is a esoteric subject which only satisfies the academic, but I believe we should all be asking questions about the body of evidence in which our vocation is emerged.

JustBen September 28th, 2004 02:35 PM

Re: Recovered memory
I know how you feel, loftus75. We've got a whole lot of people reading posts and not contributing.

I don't have a lot of experience or training on this topic, and the first question that sprung into my mind while reading your article was: What are the practical therapuetic implications of this information?

Obviously, it means that clinicians should proceed with caution in this territory, but I'm not sure how that would manifest itself in session. If a client/patient brings up a memory, what are we supposed to do? It seems like "reality testing" the memory or checking other available evidence has the potential to alienate the client/patient (i.e. "My therapist thinks I'm making this up.", "My therapist thinks I'm crazy and that I've manufactured this memory.") and thereby corrupt the therapuetic alliance. On the other hand, accepting the memory at face-value seems unacceptable because of the impact on the other people involved.

What generic advice would you offer to clinicians when a client raises a memory of this nature?

loftus75 October 2nd, 2004 11:28 AM

Re: Recovered memory
Thanks for your reply JustBen, I read it a couple of days ago but haven't had time to reply before now.

I would say in reply to question,

What are the practical therapeutic implications of this information?
Although I chose the rather 'hot topic' of recovered memory to initiate the discussion, the subject of memory is core to all we do in therapy. How our clients report directs the therapeutic process. It seems to me this being the case, that the reliability of these reports need some form of assessment. I would not suggest that our sessions with clients become an inquisition, but that it is part of our task to challenge our clients. Surely this is the intention when we set goals.

In my experience most clients come to therapy with beliefs that interfere with their lives, if a client believes that a traumatic event controls much of their behaviour this should be challenged.

I would say that it isn't necessarily a matter of factual truth we are discussing here, but rather the consequences of a memory which is embedded in belief as opposed to a belief that is embedded in memory. e.g., if I have a memory that leads me to believe I have no control of my current life, then in order for me to regain a sense of agency I need to challenge this belief. Equally if I believe I have a memory that I believe has some control over me, then I have to challenge that memory in order to regain a sense of agency. That is not to say one has to challenge the memory as an occurrence, but rather the effects of that memory. The question becomes, which of the two, memory or belief is the interfering factor.


What generic advice would you offer to clinicians when a client raises a memory of this nature?
Sequence is at the core of this, deciding which influence is the greatest, belief or memory.

JustBen October 14th, 2004 03:42 PM

Re: Recovered memory
Thanks for taking the time to respond. I'm a little puzzled by this statement, though:


Originally Posted by loftus75
That is not to say one has to challenge the memory as an occurrence, but rather the effects of that memory.

Isn't this really the same thing as challenging the belief about the memory? What, other than "belief", might the effect of the memory be? I'm sure I'm getting lost in the words, here. Thanks.

Melody Victor, Ph.D. October 15th, 2004 09:26 PM

Re: Recovered memory
Let me take a stab at it, and I'm sure I'll be corrected if I'm way off the mark...

The effects of the memory of, say, being beaten as a child on a daily basis...could be shame, rage, self-deprication and so on. This is something one can challenge, whether or not the beatings actually happened, or happened with this frequency. This would be different from challenging the memory itself.

Paul Miedema October 18th, 2004 05:26 AM

Re: Recovered memory
That is not to say one has to challenge the memory as an occurrence, but rather the effects of that memory. The question becomes, which of the two, memory or belief is the interfering factor.

This is what it is all about, for me. This difference between what factually has happened and how I interpreted these facts. Facts, as far they are facts as I see them, with all my bias. We all know that "facts" differ from observer to observer. And maybe only identical descriptions of these facts could support some kind of approximation of what "really" happened.

So I guess that "belief" is the interfering factor and we behave "as if" our belief is congruent with reality.

Ah, you know all that.... :)


Lucy Jensen October 24th, 2004 11:26 PM

Re: Recovered memory

I've been puzzling over this post, and the responses. for several weeks.

It seems to me clear that memory is corruptible and unreliable. Yet themes and general impressions are usually correct. For instance, it is unlikely you attempted to visit your childhood home, believing it to be in another state or county than it was, in fact. In the same way, it is unlikely that a client will report abuse, violence, humiliation or suffer from attachment difficulties, if their home environment was nurturing and stable.

Of course, any negativity about a reported childhood cannot be necessarily attributed to "abuse". Medical treatment and trauma, adoption (open and/or closed), sibling relationships, extended family and parental/marital conflict all impact on children. But, again, it is unlikely that someone would report a troubled marriage when all was "fine" according to the parents. I would tend to believe the client picked up on unacknowledged tensions.

Thus, I come to my difficulty, as a clinician, with the memory VS belief dichotomy. Certainly, it is important to focus on a client's beliefs and reactions. Yet, we must be wary of entirely separating "reactions" and "beliefs" from reality/memories. If we engage in such a schism, then we risk reenacting (possible) dynamics from the clients past... denial of "facts" like substance abuse, battering, etc.

Certainly, all memories are not foolproof and there are some clients who malinger or have secondary gain issues. On the whole, however, I tend to believe clients present for treatment with hopes of greater calm and joy in their lives. But I tend to believe that my effectiveness in helping them lies BOTH is validating memories AND in confronting false and self limiting beliefs.

Lucy J.

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