Focus-Science and Technology - - Cover Story -

There’s an on­go­ing de­bate in psy­chol­ogy about the na­ture of false mem­o­ries, and their im­pli­ca­tions for crim­i­nal cases. Can false mem­o­ries be imag­ined out of thin air, or do they need some kind of ‘real-life’ seed? And if false mem­o­ries can ma­te­ri­alise out of noth­ing, what does that mean for the tes­ti­monies of de­fen­dants, vic­tims and eye­wit­nesses?

To take one ex­am­ple, in the 1990s, there was a panic that psy­chother­apy pa­tients were be­ing fur­nished with false mem­o­ries of child­hood sex­ual abuse. Could the seeds of false mem­o­ries of abuse be sown when ther­a­pists dig for for­got­ten child­hood trau­mas as ex­pla­na­tions of psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems in later life?

“Al­though some peo­ple can and do have rea­son­ably ac­cu­rate mem­o­ries for child­hood abuse, there are cir­cum­stances un­der which sug­ges­tive in­ter­view­ing or ther­apy can create mem­o­ries of abuse where there are none,” says psy­chol­o­gist Prof Mark Howe. In 2015, two psy­chol­o­gists found that in­ter­views with vol­un­teers us­ing repet­i­tive, sug­ges­tive ques­tion­ing led to 70 per cent of them falsely re­mem­ber­ing hav­ing com­mit­ted a crime in early ado­les­cence that led to po­lice con­tact. Their re­ported mem­o­ries were rich in de­tail, de­spite be­ing demon­stra­bly un­true.

But clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Prof Chris Brewin of Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don ques­tions whether rep­utable ther­a­pists work in such a way as to ac­ci­den­tally seed false mem­o­ries. He also says that false mem­o­ries are not eas­ily spun out of noth­ing. “Peo­ple prob­a­bly wouldn’t be hav­ing these mem­o­ries with­out a con­nec­tion to

some­thing,” he points out. De­tails might be mis­re­mem­bered, but Brewin says there’s usu­ally a “grain of truth” in such rec­ol­lec­tions. The ques­tion is whether that grain of truth is an ac­tual event or just the memory of a book, TV show or movie, or some­thing some­one told you.

This as­pect of false memory re­mains highly con­tentious. Yet Brewin says that clin­i­cal spe­cial­ists agree that re­cov­ered mem­o­ries ex­ist and that “they can be true, false or a mix­ture of the two.” He and Prof Ber­nice An­drews ar­gue that “ei­ther un­crit­i­cally ac­cept­ing false mem­o­ries, or dis­be­liev­ing gen­uine re­cov­ered mem­o­ries, has the po­ten­tial to do im­mense harm.”

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