5X5 Episode 97

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5X5 Episode 97
Repressed Memories
11th April 2012

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5X5 96 5X5 98
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Repressed Memories[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.


S: This is the SGU 5X5 and tonight we're talking about Repressed Memory Syndrome, or as some call it, False Memory Syndrome.

R: Wait, I don't remember agreeing to this.

(Pained laughter from all.)

S: This is a controversy that started mainly in 1988 with the publication of the book The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. The book alleges that as much as 45% of women were sexually abused as children but that most women have repressed this memory and it is now manifesting later in their life with psychological problems such as eating disorders, anxiety or depression. They therefore recommend pursuing the possibility of repressed memories of sexual abuse or other abuse in patients, especially women who present to therapists with these other problems. This has led to an explosion of such diagnoses by so-called repressed memory therapists over the ensuing years and the fiery controversy over whether or not repressed memories are real. There was no scientific evidence to back up Ellen Bass's and Laura Davis's claims at the time they made them and the research before and subsequently shows that repressed memory syndrome essentially doesn't exist and that in fact the process of therapy that repressed memory therapists undergo, if anything, creates false memories of the alleged abuse, thereby victimizing their clients and those who are falsely accused of having abused them.

E: The whole concept of repressed memories actually originated with Sigmund Freud in an essay from 1896 called On the Aetiology of Hysteria. Freud more or less stated that the whole issue about repressed memories during the clinical cases that he oversaw in the late 19th century inspired him to develop his psychological theories about the nature of unconscious mental processes. When Freud preformed those case studies on women who were victims of sexual abuse, he had concluded that when people experience trauma, a mechanism in the brain unconsciously represses this trauma from our awareness as a way for us to protect ourselves from those haunting experiences. He used the term repression to describe the way the emotionally painful events would be blocked out of our consciousness. Freud wound up abandoning this theory actually not long after he had first suggested it and in the early 20th century he replaced it with his concept of the ego, superego and id.

B: There are therapies that are claimed to be tailored to specifically recover repressed memories as Steve alluded to earlier. This therapy is called, you guessed it, Recovered Memory Therapy. This term is not however recognized by the DSM, which is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which is pretty much the standard in the field and nor is the term used by mainstream psychotherapists. There are many techniques that can be used during this therapy including hypnosis, visualization, group therapy, even trance writing. Hypnosis is one of the more common techniques that you may have heard of. Hypnosis is problematic because of suggestion and leading questions and confabulation that can happen so often when people are hypnotized, which can actually cause false memories that are all but indistinguishable from real memories. Group therapy can evolve quickly into an environment in which the creation and support of false memories are reinforced. Visualizations or guided imagery can also be used and they will often start with a real childhood memory, which is then distorted and added to causing the patient to believe horrendous things with no external corroboration. And the final one that I'm going to cover is this trance or automatic writing which I hadn't been familiar with. This is actually used sometimes to supposedly recover these false memories. It generally involves writing quickly without conscious thought at all. So the idea is that the unconscious mind - the real inner you - is kind of like taking over, which can pull up these memories that you don't have conscious access to. Some people even believe that a spirit guide is actually guiding your hand, helping you get in touch with these memories that you've somehow lost. But of course I'm not surprised that there's no evidence at all that this technique has any therapeutic value at all.

R: There are a few famous, or semi-famous I guess, researchers who look into the idea of repressed memory and have become skeptics of it. Harrison Pope and James Hudson are Harvard University psychiatrists and they published papers in the past claiming that there's no evidence for the idea of repressed memory. And in 2006 as a way to sort of prove their conclusions they held a contest in which they asked people to suggest any mention of repressed memory that occurred prior to 1800. Their point being that if it were a real phenomenon then it would have effected people prior to that date. And they claimed that of the hundred responses they received none of them qualified and therefore they proved their point. This was contested by Ross Cheit who is a political scientist at Brown University [who has won lawsuits based on his own recovered memories]. He came up with a literary example in the form of a 1786 opera called Nina that apparently referenced repressed memory. The Harvard researchers admitted that he was correct and they gave him the $1000 prize they'd been offering. However they didn't issue any kind of formal retraction of their original article.

J: The repressed memory notion has even led to significant lawsuits. After the idea of recovered memories became popular, many people began suing those who supposedly were accused to abuse them. In the late 1990s the idea of recovered memories became discredited and was seen to be actually implanted false memories. People began to start suing their psychologists and psychiatrists for implanting those memories and breaking up their families and causing them all sorts of other problems in their lives. A significant shift happened where people were originally suing people that were supposedly abusing them and then it quickly shifted over to people suing those who actually implanted the false memories.

So there's three reasons why a recovered memory lawsuit is difficult to win today, which is very different than in the '80s. That is, first of all, the field of recovered memory therapy has been extremely discredited within the psychological community. So it's difficult to find a credible therapist to argue for its validity. Many people know that recovered memory therapy is actually implanted false memories so most juries won't believe it even if they do hear it and even when these cases are presented to them. And finally there's little evidence in a trial that comes down to whose memory is more accurate. So without physical evidence or witnesses there isn't much of a case and just on false memories alone people cannot win court cases anymore.

S: This entire episode has a lot of lessons in it. Bass and Davis were actually not experts in the field, they were not experts in memory or in therapy. They published the book to the public making the case for a very controversial notion without first passing their ideas through peer review, through the usual mechanisms of evaluating those ideas. Specifically they weren't tested in any way systematically with scientific evidence. So they essentially bypassed the scientific method which is supposed to be there as a filter for ideas, you know most new ideas like this are in fact wrong. So they did create a lot of harm by bypassing science and going straight to the public. It also reveals the notion that if you try to come up with the one answer for a wide variety of complex and different problems, then you're likely to again come up with a similar situation where you are proposing essentially a false answer. In medicine we call that problem "if your only tool is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail to you," so essentially what they were saying was that all of these diverse mental health issues are really at their root all repressed memories of sexual abuse in childhood.

Also many people have likened the repressed memory syndrome accusation as a modern day witch hunt, and the book The Courage to Heal as being the equivalent of the Malleus Maleficarum. In essence what Bass and Davis were saying is that there can be this past event of abuse even in the absence of any evidence, even with the absence of a memory of the event itself. Essentially that is a witch hunt where using spectral evidence, repressed memories and using special pleading to explain away the complete and utter absence of any corroborating evidence. They also grossly underestimated the degree to which memory is malleable and subjective, the fact that it's so easy in fact to implant false memories, and the notion that when you end the effective confirmation bias, essentially they felt because you assume that, for example, somebody that comes in with depression had repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, that if you start to dig for those memories that you would find them. They then assumed that because they found those repressed memories that confirmed their hypothesis when in fact they completely ignored the possibility that they were just manufacturing those memories. So they ignored a lot of basic scientific and medical protocols and completely ignored everything that we had learned up to that point about human memory and human psychology and launched into what turned out in retrospect to be a modern day witch hunt. These are lessons that are important to learn otherwise these types of episodes will just be repeated again.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.