The Recollection of False Childhood Memories

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An experiment performed in the 1970s studied how people’s memories accountable or misleading are in case they are witnesses to an accident. In this research the participants watched a short video that simulated a car accident. The event happened in an intersection where a stop sign was placed. After the subjects had seen the video, half of them were suggested that the sign on the video was a yield sign. The next step was to ask the participants what sign they remember to be seen in the video. The people who got the suggestion that it was a yield sign claimed that they saw that and not the stop sign. The other half of the subjects remembered more accurate than they did. This experiment proves that even if we see something with our own eyes, when we are suggested that we saw something else, we tend to believe it and create a false memory.

There is a certain place where false memories are more often to be recalled as usual. This place is either therapy or counselling. There are several cases where patients visited therapists or went for counselling due to a problem like stress, bulimia, anxiety or depression, and after numerous visits of the specialist they remembered of being sexually abused or assaulted in their childhood.

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A good example for such event is the case of Beth Rutherford. She was a nineteen years old nurse in a cancer unit who made a decision to visit a therapist at Park Crest Village Assembly of God church due to her sleeping problems caused by work. At the first meeting she was sure that she had a normal family and good childhood but after several counselling sessions she began to have doubts about it. She started to recall memories from her childhood that were repressed in her mind, at least she was told that by her therapist, Donna Strand. These memories were about her being sexually abused by her father several times between the ages of seven and fourteen. Already at her first session she was told that her symptoms were similar to people’s who were abused sexually. All of Beth’s happy childhood memories got a new interpretation and were completely twisted. Rutherford told about three events that were reinterpreted in an account in the FMSF Newsletter. One of them was the following: “I told the therapist about times when my Dad and I wrote out checks and paid bills together when I was 9 years old. Instead of seeing the good in this situation, that I was learning about finances and enjoying a grown-up activity, my therapist focused on a twisted reinterpretation, stating that my father treated me as a marriage partner, and that he really should have been doing this with my mom. The therapist said that this was an indication that he preferred me over my mother.”

As we can see a nice memory was turned into a proof of the father’s alleged sexual desire. Since all the things Beth could remember were told to be an evidence of her being sexually abused, she began to believe them and remember these memories in the way she was told they happened. Not only twisting the stories played a role in creating false memories but also another method used by her therapist, where she could “enter a trance-like state through self-hypnosis.” Using these procedures Beth was even able to recall that she was being impregnated by her father and then had abortion with a coat-hanger by him. She believed it, even though she was a virgin and her father got a vasectomy when she was four, and she was so sure about the truthfulness of this memory that it never came to her mind to visit a gynaecologist who could have told her that she never had a sexual intercourse. Only months later, after she stopped going to therapy, realised she that the memories of her father abusing her were all false memories implanted in her mind by her therapist.

Unfortunately, Beth Rutherford’s case is not unique. In 1986 in Wisconsin Nadean Cool became a victim of a psychiatrist who made her remember false memories. She visited the specialist due to an experience of a traumatic event and had the hope that therapy would help her to cope with it. During her meetings with the counsellor she became a subject of hypnosis and other similar methods in order to help her remember repressed memories of abuse she had experienced. The procedures were said to be successful since Nadean could recall these buried memories. Among them there were memories of being part of a satanic cult, being sexually abused and even eating babies and having sex with animals. Eventually, Cool realised that she was having false memories. Similarly to the previous one, in this case the therapist succeeded to make the patient believe and remember events that did not happen to her.

In conclusion, it can be seen clearly that it is possible for us to believe something that never happened to us. Furthermore, there are more than one way to make someone create a false memory. On one hand there is the method of narrative implantation when a fake story is told and by imagining the event and talking about it the subject is able to remember it and even to recall details. On the other hand, showing professionally photoshopped pictures can also make people believe that an event happened to them, whether the subject is a children or an adult. The only thing that might play a changing role in this case is the plausibility of the event showed. Besides, there is another method of implanting fake memories used by the therapists mentioned. These procedures contained either the twisting of real memories or using hypnosis and other suggesting methods but using them parallel is also effective in the creation of false memories.

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