RECOVERED MEMORY THERAPY
HOW DOES HUMAN MEMORY WORK?
Various belief systems:
There have been many belief systems suggested, to account for the
operation of human memory:
|Mind is like a video tape: The mind records in very complete
detail every event during a person's lifetime, much like a video tape.
Retrieving a memory is similar to searching for a scene in a video
tape: one selects the correct cartridge, fast-forwards to the episode
of interest, and observes the scene. It does not matter how a memory
from the past is accessed, whether through direct memory, or with the
aid of hypnosis, "truth serum", guided imagery, etc. By
whatever method it is accessed, it is exact and reliable.|
One example of this belief system occurred during the police
interrogation of Paul R. Ingram of Olympia WA.
He was charged with multiple cases of Satanic Ritual
Abuse. As he was describing one of the abuse scenes, an interrogator
asked him what time the rape took place. In his mind, he "zeroed in" on one
of the perpetrator's arms and read the time off of his watch dial. Both Ingram
and his interrogator appear to have believed in the video camera
theory of memory.
This belief system reinforced the recovered memory
therapy (RMT) movement, which regards many adult emotional
problems as being caused by repressed memories of childhood sexual
abuse. Many RMT therapists believe that certain childhood memories are
stored precisely and in complete detail in an area of the brain that
is normally inaccessible; the memories are repressed. This is
sometimes believed to be limited to only sexual abuse memories.
However, hypnosis, guided imagery and similar therapies are believed
to be able to unlock these memories and recall them in pristine detail
as they actually happened.
|Mind is reconstructive: Events are imperfectly remembered.
Many events are not remembered at all. Some events are remembered
initially but later gradually forgotten. A trigger (e.g. an article in
a newspaper, a photograph of a friend etc) might bring back a recently
forgotten memory. However, most events eventually become permanently
lost and can never be retrieved. |
It is impossible for the brain to store complete details of every
event. It simply does not have the storage capacity to hold that
amount of data. Rather, only a minimal amount of information is
actually stored in the brain. When we recall a memory, our mind will
automatically "flesh out" the recollection by inventing
details of the event, based on previous similar experiences. This
process is largely unconscious; we are not generally aware of it
One interesting phenomenon can occur when the memory is being recalled
as a result of questions by a therapist or interrogator. Their
suggestive questions can distort this "fleshing out"
process. The mind can add new components to the memory that are
unrelated to the original event. Even more interestingly, these
distortions will later re-enter the client's memory, and will probably
emerge during subsequent recalls.
|Mind is distributed through the body: The human mind is not
all confined to the brain. It is rather distributed around the body.
For example, the foot has an elementary brain that will automatically
operate the accelerator of a car in order to keep the car moving at a
constant speed without any conscious involvement of the brain. A woman
who has experienced severe trauma will store memories of that event in
those cells in her body which were involved in the attack. When she
suffers a flashback, these "body memories"
reconstruct the violence as if it is currently happening to her. This
belief system is promoted by some feminists.|
|Mind is very selective in what it remembers: Jennifer Freyd,
a professor at the University of Oregon has formed an interesting
theory of the psychological processes involved in human memory. She
believes that a repression/dissociation mechanism exists whereby
memories of some specific types of abuse are repressed and can only be
recovered later through recovered memory therapy. She believes that
seriously distressing events will often be remembered continuously
into adulthood. So will instances of sexual molestation and abuse. But
memories of sexual abuse by parents or other caregivers are often
repressed. She believes that the factor that causes the mind to treat
these two types of sexual abuse differently is a sense of betrayal in
the mind of the child. 2 The rationale is that a
child abused by a parent is continually in the presence of the abuser.
Each time that they see the abuser, they try to forget the abuse.
Eventually, the memory is repressed, and can only be recovered through
hypnosis and other similar techniques. Her theories have gained widespread support
among adults who believe that they have recovered long-repressed
memories of sexual abuse by their parents. They do not seem to have
been widely accepted by the therapeutic community and other memory
History of beliefs about the mind:
In the early years of the 20th century, Sir Frederick
Bartlett, a British psychologist from Cambridge, concluded that human
memory was far more reconstructive than was previously thought. He became
convinced that memory is not an accurate record of the past. Rather, the
mind reconstructs a memory based on minimal stored information. It adds
additional material - something like a paint-by-numbers canvas. The latter
was "shown to be affected by cognitive biases, short-cuts in
reasoning strategies, social and contextual processes, and even
personality factors." 1
The pendulum swung towards the video camera theory by the middle of the
20th century. Dr. Wilder Penfield, a Canadian neurosurgeon from Montreal,
performed a series of experiments in which vivid memories were recalled by
injecting a small electrical current into the temporal lobes of the
patient's brain. It appeared as if every event that a person experienced
during their lifetime was recorded in minute detail in the brain and thus
might be recalled at any time. This theory was later criticized on logical
grounds. The amount of data storage for even one year of memories would
vastly exceed any possible ability of the brain to hold.
Recent work by Elizabeth Loftus, an American psychologist from the
University of Washington, and others, has largely confirmed the
conclusions of Bartlett, and shown that the video tape theory is without
Other recent findings about memory:
"Hypnosis researchers such as Ernest Hilgard, Martin Orne,
Nicholas Spanos, and Robert Baker have shown numerous times how easy it is
to produce pseudomemories in experimental subjects who will state with
great conviction that the suggested events actually occurred."
Researchers at Northwestern University found that people confuse object
that they have actually seen and objects about which they have only
imagined. They asked people to look at real objects and then to vividly
visualize other objects. Over time, they got confused over which was which.
The authors of the study wrote: "We think parts of the brain used to
actually perceive an object and to visually imagine an object overlap. A
vividly imagined event can leave a memory trace in the brain that is very
similar to that of an experienced event."
A typical adult is unable to remember events which occurred prior to
42 months of age. Memories from events that happened during infancy (0
to 24 months) are unknown.
There appears to be no evidence for the existence of distributed memory
throughout the body. No structures external to the brain have every been
found that could remember and recall events.
The study of the human mind is currently in its infancy. It is an
exciting area of study that will lead to greater understanding in the
Related essay and menu:
- Barry L. Beyerstein & James R.P. Ogloff, "Hidden memories:
fact or fantasy?" Healthcare Reality Check, at: http://www.hcrc.org/contrib/beyerst/hidmem.html
- Jennifer J. Freyd, "Betrayal trauma: The logic of forgetting
childhood abuse," Harvard University Press, (1998). Read
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
- "Genfundne minder: Hiddden Menories: Fact or Fantasy?,"
Skeptica.dk, at www.skeptica.dk/ No
- Brian Gonsalves et al.: "Neural Evidence That Vivid Imagining Can
Lead to False Remembering," Psychological Science, Volume 15, Issue 10,
(2004-OCT), Page 655.
Copyright © 2000 to 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2001-FEB-12
Latest update: 2004-OCT-23
Author: B.A. Robinson