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I Think I Remember: Recovered/Fabricated Memories – Can Memories be easily Manipulated?

Paul B's picture

In introductory psychology class, we learned about memory. As always, I found the topic of discussion rather interesting, especially because we placed it into the context of recovering repressed memories. In 1991, a man was convicted of raping and murdering his daughter’s friend back in 1969. The conviction was largely based off of the daughter’s recovery of a repressed memory (1). Though, recovered memories are not always beneficial or even real. After erroneously thinking that she had abused her children, Patricia Burgus claimed that psychiatrists had placed memories into head. Burgus’ therapist convinced her that she had been a Satan-worshiping cannibal. Needless to say, Burgus won a hefty sum of money in the end (1). With such controversy it’s is important to investigate both the legitimacy and illegitimacy of repressed memories and the ability to recover them.

Anna Tomasulo wrote an interesting paper on the validity of repressed memory with the focus on latent memories of sexual abuse. After researching both arguments, she seemed partial to the side accepting the notion of recovering repressed memories as valid phenomenon. However, she warned that recovered memories as court evidence should be approached with healthy skepticism. Tomasulo interested me when she talked about psychotherapists assisting in the invention of false memories. She mentioned that our memories could easily be manipulated (2). I am interested in how easily our memories can be influence from outside sources. Elucidating this issue can influence policy makers in deciding whether memories recovered by hypnotic treatment and other psychotherapeutic techniques should be considered as valid court evidence.

Let’s briefly revisit arguments for and against the notion of repressed and recovered memories. Although ‘repressed memory’ is not a mainstream clinical term, dissociative amnesia is a DSM-IV recognized disorder. Dissociative amnesia is “characterized by an inability to recall important personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature, that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness” (3). Two prominent psychiatric researchers from Harvard, Pope and Hudson, further contribute to the argument, saying that dissociative amnesia prevents one from voluntarily access to memories for a substantial amount of time. After that time, however, recovered memories may be rather accurate (3). In essence, the ability to recover a repressed memory is acknowledged a possible by prominent psychiatric researchers.

Though, one must be skeptical – what were their observations? One story that supports Pope and Hudson’s side of the debate involves Jeffery Haine. Later in his life, Haine recovered painful memories of molestation by his reverend. He recovered these memories during visits to his therapists. His memories were corroborated by a man, who vividly remembered sexual abuse from the reverend, and he won his case in court (4). This observation supports the possibility that recovered memories are valid. However, I don’t consider this observation absolute because we still do not know for sure whether Haine was actually abused. A concrete observation occurred in the trial, Lund vs. Giesen. After the court ruled that Lund’s recovered memory would be considered evidence, Giesen admitted to his acts, which the recovered memory described (4). Hence, one can see that recovered memories from psychotherapy may be valid.

Nevertheless, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) vehemently argues that recovered memories should not be considered actual evidence in court. FMSF argues that recovered memories are most likely fabricated memories. They argue against the validity of memory repression. They observed sixteen children who witnessed the murder of a parent. Not one of the sixteen children forgot the trauma (4). This observation supports the argument that traumatic memories cannot be repressed, and therefore recovered memories are invented ones.

I do not validate this observation because the sixteen children were constantly reminded of their experience when they were put into contact with the police, social workers, etc. (4). Nevertheless, more convincing observations against recovered memories exist. In the trial case, Ramona vs. Ramona, the court awarded the Ramona father half a million dollars from the therapist because the therapy falsely convinced the Ramona daughter that the father had sexually abused her. Substantial evidence proved contrary to the recovered memory, but the father still lost his job and good reputation (5). Such observations suggest that recovered memories are more detrimental than helpful.

With concrete observations supporting both sides of the unresolved argument, one must look at the nervous system. Is it biologically plausible to be able to recover a repressed memory? Or is it more biologically plausible to convince oneself of a false memory? Essentially, one must ask what comprises the biological basis of memory. Memory is associated with the hippocampus structure in the brain. Within the hippocampus, long term potentiation (LTP) occurs. LTP is the wiring of neurons that ‘fire together’. LTP in the hippocampus is associated with memory and learning. Alzheimer, a detrimental disease that causes the loss of memory, has been seen to affect the LTP in the hippocampus (6). The observation that patients with Alzheimer suffer from a loss of LTP in the hippocampus links hippocampal LTP with memory.

As we are constantly leanrning and aquiring new memories, one would think that the hippocampus is constantly changing. The truth is that the hippocampus is always changing. Neurons are constantly forming and breaking synaptic connections. This notion is referred to as neural plasticity, and the hippocampus is subject to much neural plasticity (7). Since the hippocampus memory box in the brain is always changing, can it be manipulated into remembering something false? The answer is... yes and no.

Observations already mentioned have shown that psychotherapy can coerce falsified memories in some people. However, observations also show that memory remains steadfast in some people. Evolution most likely favors a steadfast memory. Hence, mundane observations, which happen everyday, contradict the assertion that our memory can be easily manipulated. For example, my memory remained unchanged when my older brother told me that I owed him ten dollars after I vividly remember that I had already paid him. Such instances support the notion that memory cannot be easily manipulated occur very frequently. Nevertheless, manipulations can occur.

So I have written almost nine hundred words, and the best answer that I can give is that observations support both points of view. What should be the policy for how to treat recover memories in court? My suggestion is to treat each case differently. As we have seen, there are observations that support the validity of recovered memories and there are observations with invalidate recovered memories. Certain professionals have a tendency to coerce their patients into inventing memories while others are able to simply guide their patients in recovering memories, which were repressed. Likewise, the memory of certain patients can be easily manipulated while others’ repressed memories cannot be altered.

I think this leads us to an interesting question for further research: what factors make one vulnerable to memory manipulation? Perhaps there is a factor that could predict how easily one’s memory can be manipulated. I would hypothesize that people who are more confident are less likely to be coerced into false memories than people with low self confidence. Unfortunately, patients who undergo hypnotic treatment tend to have lower self-esteem. Under my proposed model, the ones most vulnerable to memory alteration are the ones undergoing such therapy.

This also raises a question regarding repressed memories. Are people with lower self-esteem more likely to repress painful memories? I would again hypothesize that in the case of sexual abuse, one who is strong minded may be able to verbally and mentally say that a sexual predator has wronged him/her and would not repress their memory. On the other hand, one who has low self-esteem may not have the ability to mentally tell himself/herself (in the form of a memory) that s/he had been wronged.



1) New York Times Article “'Memory' Therapy Leads to a Lawsuit And Big Settlement” by Pam Belluck. Published 11/6/97., accessed 2/19/08

2) Serendip Website “The Validity of Repressed Memory and Sexual Abuse” by Anna Tomasulo /bb/neuro/neuro05/web2/atomasulo.html, accessed 2/16/08

3) Psychiatric Times Article “Ground Lost: The False Memory/Recovered Memory Therapy Debate” by Alan Scheflin. Published 11/99, accessed 2/18/08

4) The Recovered Memory Project, accessed 2/18/08

5) “Law & Psychiatry: Third-Party Suits Against Therapists in Recovered-Memory Cases” by Paul S. Appelbaum., accessed 2/19/08

6) Serendip Website: “Hippocampal Memory: An Internet Based Look” by Christine Lord. /bb/neuro/neuro98/202s98-paper1/Lord.html, accessed 2/18/08

7) “Learning, Memory, and Plasticity” Ben Best., accessed, 2/17/08


Paul Grobstein's picture

Memories, repressed and otherwise

"there are observations that support the validity of recovered memories and there are observations with invalidate recovered memories"

That sounds like a good basis for deciding how they should be handled in the courts, as a piece of evidence requiring corrobation by other pieces of evidence? Maybe that's true of all memories in all contexts? See History, Memory, and the Brain.