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Recovered memory therapy (RMT)

Statements by professional
organizations, 2001 to now

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2001:

On 2001-JUN-14, the American Psychological Society awarded the William James Fellow Award to Elizabeth Loftus, who holds the title of distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine.  She is a Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal. In 2002-April:

"the Review of General Psychology ranked her 58th among the top 100 psychologists of the 20th century. The list includes such luminaries as Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner. Loftus was the top-ranked woman on the list. She also ranked among the 25 psychologists most frequently cited in introductory psychology textbooks." 1

The award citation said, in part:

"Elizabeth Loftus is an example of the rare scientist who is instrumental both in advancing a scientific discipline and in using that discipline to make critical contributions to society..."

"Over the past 15 years, Dr. Loftus's attention has turned to a related but considerably more controversial issue, that of the validity of "recovered memories" of childhood abuse. As a result of her pioneering scientific work as well as her activity within the legal system, society is gradually coming to realize that such memories, compelling though they may seem when related by a witness, are often a product of recent reconstructive memory processes rather than of past objective reality."

"In bringing to light these facts of memory, Dr. Loftus has joined the ranks of other scientists, past and present, who have had the courage, inspiration, and inner strength to weather the widespread scorn and oppression that unfortunately but inevitably  accompanies clear and compelling scientific data that have the effrontery to fly in the face of dearly held beliefs." 2 (Emphasis ours).

Mid 2003:

The College of Physician and Surgeons of British Columbia is the licensing and regulatory body for doctors and psychiatrists in British Columbia, Canada. They included the following passage n a letter to Mr. Lloyd Corney, a member of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation member in BC:

"Recovered memory therapy at one point, some years ago, was promoted by some as a diagnostic and treatment tool and as a model for explaining certain clinical presentations. Subsequently, the abuse of these theories and their misapplication, the results of which you are obviously fully aware of, caused this treatment to be questioned and, in fact, caused it to fall into disrepute." 3

2004:

On 2004-JAN-27, Netherlands Health Council's commission on Disputed Memories issued a report on the dangers of RMT. This was partly in response to work by the Work Group Fictive Memories, led by Jan Buys. 4 The report:

bulletStates that there now exists a broad recognition that incest memories may:
bulletBe false,
bullet"Arise during hazardous therapies," especially with vulnerable patients, and
bulletBring harm to such patients and their parents.
 
bulletAdvises therapists not to conclude a history of trauma on the basis of symptoms only.
 
bulletAffirms that therapists acting as expert witnesses should refrain from making definite statements during criminal or civil cases as to the reliability of a patient's testimony.
 
bulletDirects the relevant profesional bodies to set firm guidelines for safe practice.
 
bulletUrges the minister of Health to see that the recommenrations of the report are carried out. 5

Unfortunately, the report made no recommendations about:

bulletHow to help ex-patients who recovered memories of events that never happened -- largely memories of incest, and
 
bulletHow to handle parents who have been wrongfully convicted in recent decades for events that never happened.

2005-MAY:

Richard McNally's book "Remembering Trauma" is published. It described the "memory wars" between believers in, and critics, of RMT. Scientific American's book review states:

"McNally quickly summarizes the history of the repressed-memory debate to help readers frame the science he later presents. The issue first became big in the 1980s, when therapists began to diagnose sufferers of depression and other mental health problems as victims of childhood sexual abuse, the memories of which were said to be repressed as a defense mechanism against reliving the pain.

Reports of recovered memories of sexual abuse peaked in the mid- to late 1990s and were followed by a backlash from accused family members who denounced what they called false-memory syndrome. Practitioners of recovered-memory therapy defended their methods, even as some patients retracted their claims of abuse and sued their former therapists.

At the same time, extensive clinical research on the nature of memory and trauma was being conducted. Indeed, McNally?s analysis of it makes up the bulk of the book. From simple word memorization experiments in the laboratory to interviews with Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the author summarizes dozens of studies while providing clear explanations of psychological concepts and expert insight into the strengths and limitations of the findings. The overwhelming evidence leads him to conclude that people do not forget experiences that were truly traumatic. Although some victims can go for long periods without thinking of past events, this should not be confused with an inability to remember their ordeals. Even though at times McNally may overgeneralize, he ultimately debunks theories of repressed memory and the 'trauma industry' that has sprouted to cater to this purported condition." 6

2009:

The British Psychological Society Research Board published "Guidelines on Memory and the Law: Recommendations from the Scientific Study
of Human Memory
." They report:

"The study of human memory has made considerable advances in recent decades and we now have a much stronger and empirically informed understanding of memory. Current theoretical thinking is at a stage that supports probabilistic but not absolute statements." 7

They report some "key points:"

bulletMemories are records of people?s experiences of events and are not a record of the events themselves. In this respect, they are unlike other recording media such as videos or audio recordings, to which they should not be compared.
 
bulletMemory is not only of experienced events but it is also of the knowledge of a person?s life, i.e. schools, occupations, holidays, friends, homes, achievements, failures, etc. As a general rule memory is more likely to be accurate when it is of the knowledge of a person?s life than when it is of specific experienced events.
 
bulletRemembering is a constructive process. Memories are mental constructions that bring together different types of knowledge in an act of remembering. As a consequence, memory is prone to error and is easily influenced by the recall environment, including police interviews and cross-examination in court.
 
bulletMemories for experienced events are always incomplete. Memories are time-compressed fragmentary records of experience. Any account of a memory will feature forgotten details and gaps, and this must not be taken as any sort of indicator of accuracy. Accounts of memories that do not feature forgetting and gaps are highly unusual.
 
bulletMemories typically contain only a few highly specific details. Detailed recollection of the specific time and date of experiences is normally poor, as is highly specific information such as the precise recall of spoken conversations. As a general rule, a high degree of very specific detail in a long-term memory is unusual.
 
bulletRecall of a single or several highly specific details does not guarantee that a memory is accurate or even that it actually occurred. In general, the only way to establish the truth of a memory is with independent corroborating evidence.
 
bulletThe content of memories arises from an individual?s comprehension of an
experience, both conscious and non-conscious. This content can be further
modified and changed by subsequent recall.
 
bulletPeople can remember events that they have not in reality experienced. This does not necessarily entail deliberate deception. For example, an event that was imagined, was a blend of a number of different events, or that makes personal sense for some other reason, can come to be genuinely experienced as a memory, (these are often referred to as ?confabulations?).
 
bulletMemories for traumatic experiences, childhood events, interview and
identification practices, memory in younger children and older adults and other vulnerable groups all have special features. These are features that are unlikely to be commonly known by a non-expert, but about which an appropriate memory expert will be able to advise a court.
 
bulletA memory expert is a person who is recognized by the memory research
community to be a memory researcher. It is recommended that, in addition to current requirements, those acting as memory expert witnesses be required to submit their full curriculum vitae to the court as evidence of their expertise. 7

References:

  1. Gary Robbins, "Renowned psychologist joins UCI," The Orange County Register, 2002-AUG-24.
  2. Elizabeth Loftus, "When Scientific Evidence Is the Enemy," The Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 25, No. 6 2001-NOV/DEC, Pages 14 & 15.
  3. "News from Canada," False Memory Syndrome Foundation newsletter, 2003-JUL/AUG, Volume 12, #3. Online at: http://www.fmsfonline.org/
  4. "Werkgroep Fictieve Herinneringen," at: http://www.werkgroepwfh.nl/ (In the Dutch language).
  5. "The report 'Disputed Memories' recognizes and provides solutions for the problems caused by false incest memories," Press release by Work Group Fictive Memories, 2004-JAN-27. (Also in Dutch; translation by Adriaan Mak.
  6. "Guidelines on Memory and the Law: Recommendations from the Scientific Study of Human Memory." British Psychological Society Research Board, 2008-JUN, at: http://www.forensiccentre.com/
  7. Richard J. McNally, "Remembering Trauma," Belknap Press, (2005). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

Copyright 1996 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Latest update: 2009-AUG-20
Prepared by: B.A. Robinson

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