Imagine that you're watching your child's soccer game and the other team scores a goal. A parent complains that the goal shouldn't count because the player who scored it touched the ball with her hands in violation of the rules. At the moment the goal was scored, you hadn't noticed that the player used her hands, but when your mind runs an instant replay of the action, you now see that she did.
Is your memory accurate? Did you actually see the foul? Did the foul even happen? The answer to all three questions is, not necessarily. Your memory for the play may have been influenced by suggestion. Suggestibility refers to the vulnerability of your memory to being influenced by information that you learn after the fact. The "latecomer" information insinuates itself into your memory the next time you recall the event.
Numerous studies have demonstrated how easy it is to implant "false memories" into people's recollection of their childhood. In one study, parents filled out a questionnaire that asked whether certain events happened to their children, who were now college students. The students themselves were then asked if they remembered certain events. Some of these events had actually occurred, according to the parents' questionnaires, but others were fabricated. At the time of the first rating, the majority of the students accurately distinguished between the true and false events. However, in later interviews, if a researcher suggested that a fabricated event had actually happened to them when they were children, 20 to 40 percent of the students described some memory of it.
We don't know if you become more vulnerable to suggestibility as you age, but we do know that it happens to people of all ages. Several studies with preschoolers indicate that suggestive questioning by the police or other authority figures can lead chil- i35
dren to assert that certain events occurred when in fact they didn't. Notable memory researchers have questioned the accuracy of children's testimony in high-profile cases of alleged sexual abuse, such as the Fells Acres case in Massachusetts and the McMartin Preschool case in California, both of which gripped the nation in the 1980s. The children's "memories" were thought to have been influenced by leading questions and information to which the children were exposed during the investigative process.
Similarly, the credibility of "recovered memories" of childhood abuse has been called into question. In a typical case of recovered memory, an adult in psychotherapy may begin to experience memories of traumatic events related to very early childhood. Retrospective analysis of how some of these memories were unearthed has raised questions about possible suggestive techniques used in the therapy process.
Recovered Memories. Perhaps no other concept in contemporary memory science is more controversial than recovered memory. Recovered memory refers to the recall of a previously repressed memory. Repression is a psychological defense mechanism that forces a highly disturbing event out of conscious awareness in order to protect a person from anxiety. When a repressed memory emerges into consciousness, it is said to be a recovered memory.
Recovered memories are most often cited in cases of early childhood trauma in which the victim was assumed to have unconsciously repressed a horrific experience, keeping it locked away from conscious awareness for years. Proponents of recovered memory believe that the experience of the traumatic memory is provoked, either gradually or abruptly, by an event or another stimulus that the person consciously or unconsciously associates with the trauma. Sigmund Freud believed that repressed memory formed the basis for neurosis. Some psychotherapists facilitate the recovery of buried memories of traumatic events as a step toward emotional healing for their patients.
The debate over the validity of recovered memory is most intense in legal cases involving alleged abuse or horrendous crimes. In what has been cited as the first case in the United States of a murder conviction based on a recovered memory, George Franklin Sr., of Redwood City, California, was found guilty in 1990 of the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl that had occurred twenty-one years earlier. The 1969 case was reopened after Franklin's daughter, Eileen, came forward, claiming to have recovered a vivid memory of witnessing her father committing the crime. By her report, Eileen's "memory" was triggered by an innocuous remark made by her young daughter. The case was later dismissed when it was learned that Eileen's recovered memories were based on facts that had been published in newspaper accounts at the time of the crime; hence, Eileen's "memory" of the event may have been based on misattribution.
Critics of the recovered memory concept argue that the same type of influences that create false memories can be at work in psychotherapy and in criminal investigations. The therapist's role as an authoritative figure provides powerful leverage for influencing the thoughts, feelings, and memories of the patient. A therapist can intentionally or unintentionally use the power of suggestion to induce a patient to think that he or she remembers something that didn't happen. And in criminal investigations, police, social workers, and other officials in positions of authority can dramatically influence what a person remembers.
Proponents of the recovered memory concept argue that the more unusual and disturbing the memory, the less likely it is to be false. They also contend that it is natural for many recovered memories to be revealed in therapy sessions because the therapist creates a safe environment in which disclosure is key to the efficacy of treatment.
At this point, there's no consensus regarding the validity of recovered memories. But as research clarifies how memory works, we'll gain a better understanding of the interplay between knowl-
edge and emotion in the recollection of traumatic experiences and know with more certainty how useful and reliable recovered memories really are.
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