The Accuracy of Recovered Memories

Are “recovered memories” reliable?

The authors who have challenged the accuracy of “recovered memories” have recently been persuaded by the accumulated research to be “open to the possibility that some recovered memories are genuine” (Lynn et al., 2014, p. 23). Many studies have led them to admit recovered memories can be genuine, including the following.

A blind review of evidence for trauma (including confessions by perpetrators) among individuals with recovered and continuous memory found equal accuracy in recovered and continuous memories of child sexual abuse in adults (Dalenberg, 1996). In this study, 17 women recovered memories of episodes of abuse that they were completely unaware had occurred, and most of this abuse was corroborated, including via confessions by seven fathers. Similarly, Williams (1995) found equal accuracy in continuous and recovered memories of abuse among women who had experienced documented childhood trauma that occurred 17 years earlier. Individuals who recover memories outside of psychotherapy are equally able to corroborate their traumas as those with continuous memories of abuse (Geraerts et al., 2007). In a study of suggestibility among patients with reported delayed recall of trauma memories, Leavitt (1997) found that “recovered memory” patients scored lower on suggestibility than did a psychiatric control group. Thus, current research shows that patients with delayed recall of trauma are less suggestible than are other psychiatric patients. Overall, research with abused, nonabused, clinical, nonclinical and experimental participants finds that recovered memories and continuous memories are equally accurate and are more likely to be true than false (see Dalenberg, 2006 for a review).

Dalenberg et al. (2014) observed that researchers who challenge the reliability of recovered memories have not offered a single study in which all or most of the recovered memories were false, nor has any study in which evidence of trauma was systematically sought found an absence of corroboration in most recovered memory clients. Furthermore, Dalenberg et al. (2014) challenged:

The FM theories of continuous memory championed by Lynn et al. are not the sole theories of memory, and we would contend that they are not the more widely accepted theories of memory. For example, some recent neurobiological research shows that memory is altered and therefore potentially distorted by retrieval, since it is laid down anew each time it is accessed (e.g., Bridge & Paller, 2012). Thus, memories perceived as “continuous” may be false, as gradual changes occur that relate to the context of remembering. Neural mechanisms underlying dissociative responses to trauma involving prefrontal hyperactivity and limbic suppression are similar to those observed in experimental memory suppression paradigms (Anderson et al., 2004; Lanius et al., 2010; Lanius, Brand, Vermetten, Frewen, & Spiegel, 2012). Recovered memory may differ only in that the time since access has become prolonged and there is a relative inhibition of memory access. Such findings provided a portion of the basis for the inclusion of a dissociative subtype of PTSD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for the Mental Disorders (DSM-5; Lanius et al., 2012).

Many of the cases argued by some to be exemplars of “false memory” involved substantial evidence of child sexual including medical evidence of abuse and even confessions by some of the perpetrators; thus, many of the cases alleged to be part of a national overly aggressive “witch hunt” (Nathan & Snedeker, 2001) for child sexual abuse are not entirely fabricated accusations of abuse. However, some of these cases did not result in guilty convictions because it was not clear who had abused the children although judges recognized that abuse had occurred, and a few of the investigations had included leading interviews of some of the children (Cheit, 2014a). Critically, the number of cases that involve exaggerated or false claims of childhood sexual abuse appear to be far less prevalent than proponents of false memories acknowledge (Cheit, 2014a).

Elizabeth Loftus is a well-known memory researcher who studies “false memories.” However, relatively few people in the mental health field or among the public are aware of Loftus’s recurrent errors in reporting her research (Olafson, 2014). Peer reviewed literature documents that Loftus has used questionable tactics including hiring a private investigator to determine the identity of a young woman in a case study who had been videotaped while recovering a memory of child sexual abuse; Loftus subsequently published private information without this woman’s permission which ultimately caused the woman significant emotional distress, led to her declaring bankruptcy, and resigning from her military career (Cheit, 2014b; Putnam, 2014).

[1] Lynn, S. J., Lilienfeld, S. O., Merckelbach, H., Giesbrecht, T., McNally, R. J., Loftus, E. F., … & Malaktaris, A. (2014). The trauma model of dissociation: Inconvenient truths and stubborn fictions. Comment on Dalenberg et al.(2012).

[2] Dalenberg, C. J. (1996). Accuracy, timing and circumstances of disclosure in therapy of recovered and continuous memories of abuse. The Journal of Psychiatry & Law24, 229.

[3] Williams, L. M. (1995). Recovered memories of abuse in women with documented child sexual victimization histories. Journal of Traumatic Stress8(4), 649-673.

[4] Geraerts, E., Schooler, J. W., Merckelbach, H., Jelicic, M., Hauer, B. J., & Ambadar, Z. (2007). The reality of recovered memories corroborating continuous and discontinuous memories of childhood sexual abuse. Psychological Science, 18(7), 564-568.

[5] Dalenberg, C. (2006). Recovered memory and the daubert criteria recovered memory as professionally tested, peer reviewed, and accepted in the relevant scientific community. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 7(4), 274-310.

[6] Dalenberg, C. J., Brand, B. L., Loewenstein, R. J., Gleaves, D. H., Dorahy, M. J., Cardeña, E., … & Spiegel, D. (2014). Reality versus fantasy. Reply to Lynn et al.(2014).

[7] Nathan, D. & Snedeker, M. (2001). Satan’s silence: Ritual abuse and the making of a modern American witch hunt. iUniverse.

[8] Cheit, R. E. (2014). The witch-hunt narrative: Politics, psychology, and the sexual abuse of children. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.