False Memory

two-adults-and-child-walk-field-at-duskA false memory is any incident that a person clearly remembers but that either did not happen or did not happen the way the person remembers it. False memories have been the subject of much controversy in the fields of psychiatry and psychology.

The Creation of Memories

Many people think of memory as an exact recording of information, but memory is highly suggestible. For memories to be encoded into long-term memory, they must be frequently rehearsed. A number of factors can cause memories to be inaccurately coded. For example, when a parent repeats a memory to a child with a minor detail added, the child may remember the detail as having occurred, even when it did not. When we incorrectly recall information for a test, we are experiencing false memories. However, the best-known example of a false memory is a recovered memory.

Recovered Memories

Recovered memories are highly controversial. In the 1980s, several psychotherapists began attempting to help their clients recover repressed unconscious memories, particularly memories of abuse. These therapists believed that maladaptive present behavior might be caused by forgotten early childhood abuse, and frequently used hypnosis, suggestion, and other techniques to help clients “remember” these events. After clients recalled the abuse, they fervently believed that it occurred, even when there was strong evidence that it did not.

The most famous of these cases centered around the McMartin Preschool. Numerous children came forward with stories of sexual abuse, torture, and even sacrifice. All of the children were interviewed by the Children’s Institute International, which used several highly suggestive techniques to help these children recall memories of abuse. The case slowly began to fall apart, and there was little evidence that abuse actually occurred. The story was the subject of several documentaries, and is often pointed to as evidence of the danger of recovering “repressed” memories.

False memory syndrome is not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) as a diagnosis, but has been documented and examined in several scientific studies. The repressed memory phenomenon has waned in recent years, though some psychotherapists still believe that repressed memories can be recovered, and some still use techniques to help their clients recover these memories. In a few cases, clinicians have been sued for creating false memories in their clients.


  1. Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  2. Linder, D. (n.d.). The McMartin Preschool abuse trial: A commentary. Retrieved from http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mcmartin/mcmartinaccount.html
  3. Loftus, E. F. (n.d.). Creating false memories. Retrieved from http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/sciam.htm

Last Updated: 12-13-2016

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jeff


    September 5th, 2015 at 9:30 AM

    Hi all.. First time posting… Ok… Advice please.. 2 years ago my sister now 40 told me that she has been she was abused from the age 2 to 17 from my dad his dad any many other men. Details including ritual abuse. Electric chair. Memories of alters full on real bad abuse. She is very spiritual past life regression etc… She told me that I would have been abused. She told me that these memories have only come to her due to the regression. . At first I believed horrible time. After research I found more identical cases. Very similar experiences. After looking into some of the stories I found that they were not true. Ie I was not there France. She said I was etc etc etc. I found this to be called false Memory Syndrome. She has multiple personality disorder. Not well. But she truly believes the abuse took place. After more research talking to my dad and mum. None of the memories took place. But she truly believes they horrible events took place.. Any info or advise. Would be great.. Thank you allxxx

  • anon


    September 1st, 2016 at 10:14 PM

    it is possible she was abused but not by your family but that the memories were implanted so she thinks that it was her family. Also abusers rarely admit that they did it when confronted.

  • Sabrina


    April 9th, 2018 at 3:19 AM

    Hi Jeff, this sounds exactly what I’ve been going through myself. In your sisters case, I’m unsure about the past regression thing but.. a memory can not be implied but it can be changed slightly, in my case, my memories returned when I was 15 but back then they claimed false memories and did hypnosis and even a brain surgery to stop me from panicking over memories they said was implied through a psychic. It was not. I forgot about these events too until 3 years ago when I went through divorce, I started getting flashbacks. Both my parents have mentioned things that they didn’t elaborate on but put guilt on themselves. They are not admitting to anything and I had to stop contact to stop them from trying to brainwash me again.
    It is very typical that only one child gets abused or other kids in family get less abused. Usually the older one gets it worse. Their thoughts are that the worse the abuse the lesss likely she will remember it. And that’s correct. So often memories coming back decades later in waves over up to about 10 years can become staggering and almost unbelievable, it is important to not jump to conclusions but to write down the memory and wait if more comes up to confirm that.
    Often, there is very little evidence to be found and that makes it very difficult for the survivors and their siblings. It’s tough. I’m hoping my sister will one day remember some of the stuff. Ones your mind is mature enough, you may get those memories back too. At least you will have someone there who will believe you. I had to look at my past and all my symptoms and issues I’ve had and they are all very typical for CSA survivors. The abuse doesn’t usually stop until the child becomes an adult and sometimes it even keeps going. The most common symptoms are dissociation, trouble focusing on tasks, sexual issues or overly being sexual, a disgust for old men, short term memory issues but excellent long term memory, self harm, bad skin, issues with food, struggling with low self esteem.. usually around the age of 30 the symptoms slowly subside and then the memories resurface. Movement of the body, meditation, healthy diet and ginkgo supplements can help with reinstating a healthy mind which can access those suppressed memories more accurately.
    Stopping self harm is also beneficial in recovering memories, like stopping alcohol, cigarettes and any other drugs, which can influence your mind and stop you from remembering.
    Look up the functions of the central nervous system and the amygdala, look up dorsal dive reflex and fight flight and freeze reflex.
    Remember, no abuser will admit to this kind of stuff, it is very rare they will, if they feel guilt they may say some strange things and might try to manipulate still. Please be cautious and stand by your sister. Often mothers know about it and won’t admit because that makes them feel guilty, look up denial, denial is a serious condition.
    Good luck 🌼

  • Sabrina


    April 9th, 2018 at 4:29 AM

    Jeff, just another thing I wanted to mention, multiple personality disorder is today called dissociative personality disorder or borderline personality disorder and it is well documented to have a root cause in child abuse at a very young age, especially childhood sexual abuse and emotional and mental abuse by a personal caretaker like a father and or mother. Please consider this as well. I hope things have resolved or cleared up since your post.

  • Maggi


    October 12th, 2017 at 4:11 PM

    Hi my daughter suffered severe depression and anxiety in 2015. She is home but needs 24 hr care as she doesn’t want to be left alone. Recently she has suddenly talks like a five year old and drags her feet. She also fears me as maybe then I was a strict mother rather then a caring person. Is there anyway I can help my daughter

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