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False Memories and Child Abuse

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At the beginning of the twenty-first century, human mind is even more complicated than it was considered before. False memories are a phenomenon that has been discussed broadly in recent decades. It is controversial due to a number of reasons and it can have negative effects on a person’s life and reputation of their family.

The concept of false memories is mostly discussed both in medical and legal contexts. The controversy usually arises when a person develops negative memories of childhood abuse, which actually have not happened to that person. As a result, he or she becomes vulnerable and depressed, family relationships are in danger, and what is more, an innocent person can be sued unjustly with the reputation ruined.

Historically, there have been several illustrative examples, which urged public debate on how this issue should be dealt. One of them is the story of Nadean Cool who has been treated by a therapist in the wrong manner: “Cool became convinced that she had repressed memories of having been in a satanic cult, of eating babies, of being raped, of having sex with animals and of being forced to watch the murder of her eight-year-old friend… because, Cool was told, she had experienced severe childhood sexual and physical abuse” (Loftus, 1997, p. 70). Similarly, several patients under hypnosis realized that they had been abused by their family members, which was not actually the case. In most cases, the falsehood of memories was easily proven, which gave legitimacy to further research in this area. Thus, for instance, Beth Rutherford got convinced during the therapy that her father, a clergyman, had raped her when she was a kid and finally got her pregnant. Examination, however, revealed that she was a virgin and could never be pregnant either (Loftus, 1997, p. 70).

Cases like this caused a discussion how true memories can be possibly known from false one, as it was obvious that false memories can be easily introduced and change the original knowledge of the situation. The research has been conducted, which involved over 20, 000 people on “how exposure to misinformation induces memory distortion” (Loftus, 1997, p.72). It is especially relevant for childhood memories because of long time periods that pass since the events happen, so that the true information becomes vague.

Researchers believe that memory and imagination are closely rlated and belong to the same field. This is why imagination is able to oust original memories or intermingle with them, which is often the case with recovered memories of child abuse. Experts believe that apart from purely scientific bias, this issue has also the economic background, which is generally related to the boom of therapeutic consultants in the United States. Thus, one of the researchers subjects the whole field to criticism: “Counseling for sexual abuse has become a thriving cottage industry. All over the United States, there are now therapists whose expertise in recovered memories may be limited to owning a copy of The Courage to Heal (Bass and Davis 1988, 1994 ), a bestselling Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, currently in its third edition. (Ford, 1996, p. 178)

Thus, one of the reasons of false memories issues is low qualification of experts who participate in treating a patient’s disorders. Another one is existence of self-help books which are the source of information for people who might have been abused in their childhood. After reading such books women who are not sure about whether they were abused or not, find the relevant symptoms with them and become convinced that the actual abuse happened, although they do not remember it. As a result, since the original memories are ousted, the empty space is filled by false memories inspired by imagination and convincing arguments from the books. Moreover, a controversial statement can be found in the books that if a woman does not remember exactly if she has been abused as a child or not but finds some of the enlisted symptoms, she can say for sure that it has actually happened.

Experts explore the reason why false memories can be “beneficial” for people who suddenly acquire them. It has been stated that they can work as a certain way of escapism from reality, which is dissatisfying. For instance, when a person lacks attention from the world and is at the same time self-centered, he or she might subconsciously develop a number of disorders including false memories. For these people, more phantasmagoric memories are typical such as abuse as a result of satanic cults and the same kind of occult rituals, which make them draw attention and feel outstanding.

One of the researchers, Elizabeth Loftus, considers the mechanism of false memory formation. When analyzing the process, she comes to the following conclusions: “First, therre are social demands on individuals to remember; for instance, researchers exert some pressure on participants in a study to come up with memories. Second, memory construction by imagining events can be explicitly encouraged when people are having trouble remembering. And, finally, individuals can be encouraged not to think about whether their constructions are real or not”(Loftus, 1997). Thus, when a person is affected by some external circumstances combined with their own emotions, chances are higher that false memories are going to emerge. The trick about human mind is that it can easily forget where the information initially originates from. With this important link missing, it is easy to believe that memories come from their own past, not from the story induced by another person.

Speaking in formation of childhood memories, many researchers point out that children are excessively suggestive (Bjorklund, 2000, p. 3). Thus, they can be easily misled even at the early stage, not even at the stage of treatment. Because childhood is a period when human mind is in the process of formation, it is more likely that a child can fail to differentiate between a memory, a nightmare and piece of imagination. This poses extra difficulty to people who eventually treat them because the real state of events cannot be always recovered.

Another researcher, Robert Baker, recognizes the existence of false memories as an issue and thinks that reducing the number of such cases is only part of a problem. In fact, consequences of false memories can be no less harmful for other people that for the actual person who has them.  He believes that it is important to find a working mechanism how to prevent patients from false claiming against innocent people. He suggests that a certain “hypothesis testing framework” should be created that would be a roadmap and be equally effective in all cases (Baker, 1998, p. 324). This is a scientific approach that will track the ratio of errors and deviation that typically occur, so that it will be easier to model future scenarios.

In conclusion, it is clear that false memories syndrome is one of the phenomena that can mislead the person and harm other people’s lives as well. The key reason of the phenomenon is the feature of mind that allows it to absorb induced information as its own. Low competence psychotherapy and self-help books can contribute to more serious consequences in terms of mental health.

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