Yeah, this has been one long series. Through it all, we’ve gone through the origins of the False Memory Syndrome dispute, and the science that each side of that dispute has offered to prove its case. For the layman, this can seem like a he-said-she-said argument after awhile, with no discernible way to determine whose science trumps the other’s.
I have to confess that as an uninitiated layperson, I was totally taken in by Ofra Bikel’s Frontline
special, “Divided Memories,” when it first aired. After witnessing a Satanic Ritual Abuse hoax and subsequent witch hunt up close, the notion seemed totally credible to me.* More important, FMS was something that I wanted to believe true. I had something personally at stake in it being true.
But as is my nature, I question everything. Frequently. Especially the stuff I’m sure of. The vast majority of the time I can’t come up with anything that would change my mind on a topic. In this case, however, I did after looking specifically at how each side used science to make their points. And after years of researching and thinking about the subject of delayed memory recall, I had to admit that the other side’s science was more compelling, relevant and methodologically sound.
To borrow from an old cigarette ad campaign
, I’d rather switch than fight against the truth.
The evidence presented by such researchers as Drs. Elizabeth Loftus, Charles Brainerd, Valerie Reyna, Sir Frederic Bartlett and others highlight the fallibility of memory. We can see in their studies cases where people inaccurately report a few items in a list of them. Or are unable to distinguish actual personal experience with falsely recorded experience.
Well, duh. Commonsense tells us that memory ain't perfect.
Truth is, we forget things. As the “War of the Ghosts” exercise in the beginning of this series suggests, we tend to cling on to what we feel are the most salient aspects. We have a tendency to fill in the gaps. As Sir Bartlett would suggest much of this improvisation betrays cultural and experiential biases. Then too, we often take suggestions from others–especially from authority figures. Thus we manage to mix belief with actual memory, sometimes. Or, we might mix-up the details of two or more different memories.
While all of these are informative, and compellingly show memory distortion, they have extremely little to do with delayed recall of childhood abuse memories. The FMS description given to us by Dr. John Kihlstrom talks about not memory distortion, but of a personality disorder, a:
“...condition in which a person's identity and interpersonal relationships are centered around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes. Note that the syndrome is not characterized by false memories as such. We all have memories that are inaccurate. Rather, the syndrome may be diagnosed when the memory is so deeply ingrained that it orients the individual's entire personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts of other adaptive behavior. The analogy to personality disorder is intentional. False Memory Syndrome is especially destructive because the person assiduously avoids confrontation with any evidence that might challenge the memory. Thus it takes on a life of its own, encapsulated and resistant to correction. The person may become so focused on memory that he or she may be effectively distracted from coping with the real problems in his or her life.”
Implicit in this definition isn’t the mistaken interpolation of memory events, but rather the assertion that memories frequently have no basis in fact whatsoever. What isn’t implicit is the attempt to foster public understanding of “false memory” that connects the forgetting of trivial details, or the reasonable, but incorrect, interjection of details into a memory, to the idea that people create complete fabrication of memory from whole cloth--merely by suggestion, no less. The studies cited by FMS proponents show that we in fact forget minutiae, and have a tendency to add non-existent items when trying to remember in a given context. What these studies do not show, or even hint at, is the common creation of a memory from scratch, with no basis in objective reality–much less that someone can implant them, especially by casual suggestion.
Instead of confining themselves to the actual results of research, FMS-proponents attempted to generalize these findings, without subsequent empirical testing. In doing so, they cast doubt on the credibility of the FMS diagnosis itself. After all, there is no study Dr. Kihlstrom or anyone else can offer that people normally invent memories out of whole cloth.** In fact, all of the research alluded to by the pro-FMS crowd points toward the opposite. Memory distortion comes more from forgetting, rearranging details in the mind, and filtering them through cultural and personal biases.
After reading the Lost in a Shopping Mall study for myself, I realized serious flaws in its assumptions and methodology. First off, it assumes that the recall of one person is superior to that of the respondent about the respondent’s own personal history, with no verification of what the facts actually are. Secondly, the weakness in the results, especially with respect to "partial memory," seem to indicate a nod toward either belief, as opposed to actual recalled experience, or compliance to social demands. Since a small minority of the respondents actually switched positions, and those who did tended to rate their recall as partial, it seems more likely to me that the respondents, for the most part, never totally bought into the premise that they were once lost in a shopping mall. If they did come to believe this, we can more easily explain their response as deferring their opinion to the authority of a family member (via the researcher) than actually recalling the experience.
Furthermore, you’d have to bend the definition of “trauma” beyond all recognition to describe getting lost in a mall as “traumatic,” especially in comparison to abuse. Then again, were it truly traumatic, one would have to question the ethics of the study. And as many researchers will tell you, traumatic memory and normal memories are very, very different in important ways.
Meanwhile, critics of the FMS present a number of neurological studies that indicate why and how dissociative amnesia forms. They also have over thirty studies that validate both delayed recall of traumatic memories of childhood sexual abuse, and the comparable accuracy of hidden memories to non-hidden (or persistent) memories. Furthermore, many of these researchers, among them Dr. James Chu, understand that actual study of traumatic memories can only come about in viwo
, due to the obvious fact that doctors shouldn’t artificially create trauma in order to study it. It’s a specialty of research in which the vast majority (if any) of FMSF’s Advisory Board have little or no experience.
Perhaps most important of all: people who have experienced delayed recall have proven the accuracy of the recovered memory through independent means.
If you hear me saying that anything and everything coming from delayed memory recall has to be accurate, then hear something else. Implicit memory is subject to distortion as much as explicit persistent memory. Moreover, anything anyone tells you isn’t necessarily true. People lie. They deceive themselves too, sometimes. If someone tells you that they distinctly remember something happening, there’s very little we can do to ascertain that what they are giving us is an actual memory, belief, or a line of BS.
The point here is that FMS has never been recognized as a diagnosis by most shrinks. Worse, it’s never actually been defined. We only have Dr. Kihlstrom’s general description of it. It’s certainly never been established by the type of empirical evidence that affirms the reality of delayed memory recall. Worse yet, we have more plausible explanations for why people adopt positions that are contrary to their actual memory. We can verify these explanations in some cases. In the McMartin case, for example, not only did two of the child witnesses admit to testifying to facts that they didn’t actually remember, but also to the fact that they depicted these false stories as their memories.
In short, "False Memory Syndrome" has never really been a scientific issue.
So, my science lost to their science. After reading the literature put out by various members of the FMSF advisory board, and their sympathists, one gets the feeling that even they realize that the science they offer doesn’t prove any of the claims by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.
But maybe, that’s not the purpose of the FMSF’s Scientific Advisory Board, or other pro-FMS researchers. Maybe their purpose is to confuse what is at heart an ideological issue with a scientific one by pointing to a body of (in large part) valid scientific research that doesn’t support the major claims of the FMSF: that unscrupulous or incompetent shrinks have implanted memories of child abuse in gullible or vulnerable patients. The FMSF, and to a large part the mediasphere, generalized the more legitimate studies in terms of what they show about memory, and their implications vis-à-vis
the issue of childhood sexual abuse. The point doesn’t seem to be about establishing the existence, validity and prevalence of FMS in concrete terms, but rather giving it verisimilitude
One thing for certain: the FMSF’s efforts to influence the public mind were greater and far more ardent than their attempts to influence science and academia. Indeed, in the public relations efforts to establish FMS in the public mind, one of the organization’s main tactics consisted of shouting down science in venues other than the lab.
*No, I won’t give details. I promised the person(s) involved that I wouldn’t discuss the matter here.
**Note, I’m not addressing schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders here, because those are (1) well described by long-standing academic literature, and (2) wouldn’t be very common. Here, Dr. Kihlstrom is asserting that completely false memories are common.
BTW, am I the only person who sees a bit of patronization in this description?