A 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 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.
- Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Linder, D. (n.d.). The McMartin Preschool abuse trial: A commentary. Retrieved from http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mcmartin/mcmartinaccount.html
- Loftus, E. F. (n.d.). Creating false memories. Retrieved from http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/sciam.htm
Last Updated: 12-13-2016
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JeffSeptember 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
anonSeptember 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.
SabrinaApril 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 🌼
SabrinaApril 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.
MaggiOctober 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
GeorgeNovember 18th, 2018 at 1:09 PM
I realise this is an old post of 1 year ago but I hope your daughter is faring much better, regressive therapy is very dangerous especially to those who’ve consumed illegal drugs or legal prescription drugs as I am finding that regressive therapy for my daughter and son has made me their worst memory and enemy it has shattered my wife and I with allegations of neglect and physical abuse with obtuse memories altered by drug abuse and Ayuascha hallucinations, other posts I’ve read also site mind altering substances as recalling false memories and of course their therapists are making a small fortune from their frequent visits.
I’m not suggesting your daughter has taken any substances but its probably worth a thought not as a solution but at least as a pointer in the right direction of recovery for your trauma, as an unwitting victim of regressive therapy nonsense.
TammyJuly 12th, 2018 at 12:31 AM
Ive been struggling with this a lot in my adult life. My first “memories” emerged when I was about 20 after I did psychedilic mushrooms. There were at first just about sexual abuse but then I got some of me doing g horrible things and then some down right impossible things. The use of these drugs and the sudden influx of memories have made it very hard for me. It lead me to be hospitalized for suicide attempts. When there they explained that shrooms usually help with bringing out past traumas. This made it even worst. I got better with some medication. But now I’m having issues again. I ended my first relationship last year and “memories” are coming back now. We got stoned a lot and my partner was much bigger than me. Memories of him knocking me out, raping and beating me while unconscious, and even selling me into sex work under the code of pizza. This memories and feelings are very new and while I want to believe they are real I’m Keen on picking up clues that support the “memories”. It’s been hard cuz family and friends are sick of the uncertainty and frequency of these claims so I haven’t told them about this most recent one. It gets even more complicated when memories come up that completely dispute the horrible “false” ones. These one tend to feel the realest with and undeniable feeling attached. I’ve noticed that if one thing comes up, for example sexual abuse, it bleeds into other memories of other people, making me whole life about sexual abuse and now about being knock out. It’s really hard because sometimes it feels like everyone in my life has a stake in my insanity, meaning if I’m constantly unsure of the past they can abuse me and I won’t remember clearly and they will get away with it. I’ve also noticed that if I’m talking with someone and they bring up a topic and I don’t force myself to remember it clearly, said topic can quickly grow into false “memories”. I recently had this with a friend who brought up stealing ideas and a few weeks later I believe that it happened to me. Just wish there was a clear cut way to know what is re and what isn’t. The internet is really no help
TDJuly 18th, 2018 at 3:09 PM
My niece was the victim of an attempted molestation when she was about 6 years old. A witness stopped it, and the abuser was confronted and fired. A report was filed but, because it was caught and stopped before he was able to actually do anything, no charges were brought. My sister was even more attentive to and protective of her daughter after that. When she was a teen, my niece and nephew began attending “meetings” with a group of young people that were led by a young married couple. They began telling me about the meetings, and how the woman was helping them to recover repressed memories. I became concerned that it sounded very much to me like a form of hypnotism. I spoke to my sister and to other parents who were letting their kids attend, but they didn’t seem to think this was anything serious… until they began to realize the woman seemed to have an unusual amount of control over the young people. Then, my niece told us she had begun “retrieving repressed memories”. She remembered her oldest brother molesting her as a baby whenever her mom made him change her diaper. The problem is, my sister had hoped and prayed for a little girl and was incredibly protective of her. She never would have dreamed of allowing her six year old son to change her diaper. In fact, the older two boys were rough and tumble little guys, and their mom never allowed them to be alone with their sister because she did not trust them to be gentle with her. My niece’s memories simply could not have happened. The sad thing is, we were faced with a choice. My niece required us to believe her and support her, or to believe her brother and support him. This was not simply a case where we were struggling to believe her brother could do such a horrible thing. Indeed, my nephew had gotten into a lot of trouble during his teen years, and I could have believed many things about him. But, in order to believe my niece I had to ignore the facts. The woman who had “helped” her to recover these “memories” convinced her to cut off her family. My nephew who had also attended the meetings (not the brother who had been accused) was also under her control for a while. However, he left on a trip where he was required to “unplug”. When he was able to turn his phone back on, he was surprised to see how many times the woman had tried to call him, and shocked when he learned the lengths to which she had gone to try to get in touch with him. He suddenly saw how strange and unhealthy this was, and her hold on him was broken. He has since realized that some of the memories he had “recalled” simply could not have happened. He also began to see how the woman may have made suggestions to the young people during their “sessions” that could have planted those memories. The sad thing is, our niece has cut off her entire family. This woman who was not in the least qualified to hypnotize anyone destroyed a family. I feel so sad for my sister, who loves her daughter. More, I feel so sorry for my niece. We are a close knit, loving family. She has lost that. More, she has horrible, false “memories” that have destroyed her childhood memories and have cut her off from those who love her. If she someday realizes and acknowledges that these memories could not have occurred, she is left with the knowledge that she cannot trust her own memories. Even under the best circumstances, recovery of repressed memories is pseudoscience.
KianMay 4th, 2020 at 12:30 PM
My experience is not from early childhood, but from battlefield injury. I experienced a TBI along with multiple physical injuries after an explosion in Iraq. I remember being in the HumVee and then was catapulted into the air. All of the details afterward were told to me. I also suffered a mini stroke since then.
Memories are jumbled up and distorted. It sounds like a fantastical lie, except for the scarring on my body.
My gf accused me of being a pathological liar. A very hard pill to swallow… ive never been accused of compulsive lieing. I dont know what to do or where to turn.
May 4th, 2020 at
Thank you Kian for reaching out and sharing your experience here. If you’d like to connect with a therapist or counselor for support, you can search for a therapist near you, here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/find-therapist.html
If you feel you are in crisis or need immediate help, here’s some crisis resources available 24/7: https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html
LaceyDecember 20th, 2020 at 10:41 AM
I used to be fairly confident, pretty in high school. My dad married my step mom when I was 8. They were overly alert for pschiatric symptoms because my biological mother has a great deal. My memories I’ve decided of childhood are a mixture of reality and fiction. I do know the was some friction between step mother and I- to the point I was kicked out forcibly, and practically abducted to live with my bio mother many states away when I was 18. A lot of bad things happened between 18 and 25. To the point I would say I was in a constant psychotic state, being left alone fairly quickly to manage all by myself after being extremely sheltered. I looked for psychiatric help often and eventually spent 8 years with a counselor remember and dissecting repressed memories which broke my dads heart, damaged myself, and tore up my family. Things slowly got a little better but life was still hard. I got married eventually and had a few psychotic breaks. And become firm with fictional beliefs and memories about my husband. Nearly got a divorce, and ended up homeless. I slowly came to the conclusion based on things I knew and facts that horrible things I believed about my husband were not true. I also got out of this thought process horrible memories about my step mother and my father held the same possibility of being false. I remember things about my childhood with accuracy and also remember things with a great amount of conviction that just did not happen. Been studying false memory syndrome and feel it fits me. Have apologized to my dad- but cannot fix his pain. Or any of the other damage I’d caused. He lost life long friends and positive reputation because of this. I have a small number of people who will always support me and be in my life, but I don’t have my family. And I never will again. I’ve also read these things resurface. I hope. With my bad memory. I remember to take repressed memories as they come and then not make any more out of them.
AnnaDecember 21st, 2020 at 11:31 AM
“False Memory” is a term that was brought into popular use by a group of alleged child molesters called the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which was disbanded in 2019/2020. It is not a scientifically validated term but rather a legal defense designed to defend incest perpetrators, and it has a legacy of harming incest survivors. A researched essay on the history of the term “false memory” can be found here: medium.com/fourth-wave/harvey-weinsteins-false-memory-defense-and-its-shocking-origin-story-2b0e4b98d526
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