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Recovered Memory Controversy

The recovered memory phenomenon has engendered considerable controversy and debate. Three differing explanations for this phenomenon have been proposed.

Accurate accounts

Recovered memories are accurate accounts of previously forgotten events, and should be accepted as such even in the absence of corroborative evidence. Explanations of why these memories are forgotten focus on unconscious mechanisms that prevent the laying down of easily retrievable memories at the time of any traumatic incident and problems of recall. The first involves a process known as dissociation. This is an altered state of consciousness in which ordinary perceptual and cognitive functioning is impaired: events feel unreal and distant from the individual. Dissociation may occur during the traumatic experience and act as a defence that prevents the individual from experiencing the full emotional impact of what is happening. Retrieval of associated memories is poor, as little if any ordinary conscious processing took place at encoding. What memories there are may be fragmented, but vivid and intense. Hunter (1997) described three forms of dissociation that have been reported by child abuse victims: (1) out-of-body experiences in which events were seen as happening to someone else who looked like the victim; (2) conscious attempts to ‘blank out’ memories of the assaults during or after they had happened; and (3) the creation of an imaginary world to which the respondent could escape and feel safe during or after the abuse. Failure to recall events is thought to be the result of denial and long-term dissociation that prevent the retrieval of information once in memory stores.


Recovered memories are illusions: false memories resulting from the therapy process itself (Zola 1998). Such memories are ‘implanted’ by therapists who have decided that the patient is an abuse victim and who use therapeutic techniques to persuade the client to remember these ‘forgotten’ episodes of abuse in order to ‘recover’. The likelihood of suggestive influences leading to memory errors is increased by the perceived authority and trustworthiness of the therapist, and their repetition and plausibility. Perhaps the least plausible of these accounts is the recovery of memories of alien abduction, although memories of long-term ritual and satanic abuse involving gang rape and ritual (child) murders have proven equally untenable.

Normal forgetting

Recovered memories are not ‘special’, but are the result of normal forgetting. This explanation may be particularly relevant to single traumatic episodes, but has more difficulty in accounting for the forgetting of repeated traumatic episodes.

Evidence of recovered memory

Protagonists on each side of the debate have interpreted research findings both to support their case and question those who disagree with them. The debate has drawn on research related to normal memory processes as well as more clinical issues.

Age at time of incident

Recovered memories are sometimes described from before the age of 2, and often in signifi cant detail. Morton et al. (1995), for example, reported that 26 per cent of allegations involved abuse that began when the claimant was aged between 0 and 2 years old. This, argue opponents of recovered memory, makes such memories unlikely to be accurate. Most people are unable to recollect experiences from the fi rst two to three years of their lives, as the cortical areas that eventually become the sites for permanent memory storage are undergoing a process of maturation at this time that makes them unable to process and store information needed for long-term recall.

Evidence of emotionally intense memory distortion

Some clinicians  have argued that trauma-related memories are not subject to the normal processes of memory decay and distortion over time, and are therefore more accurate than ‘normal’ long-term memories. Empirical evidence suggests this may not be the case. Neisser and Harsch, for example, asked students one day after the Challenger disaster, in which a space shuttle burst into fl ames on lift-off, to describe their personal memories of the event. Two years later, when asked to redescribe their memories, the accounts of one-third of the students differed substantially from their initial memories. Of note was that there was little relationship between the accuracy of recalled ‘facts’ and students’ confidence in their ability to recall them. The Challenger disaster may not have been sufficiently traumatic for those not directly involved to result in unchangeable memory traces. Whether more salient emotional events can evoke differing memory processes is unclear, although a number of case studies in which long-term emotional memories show discrepancies with actual events suggest not. Of course, this argument may challenge the accuracy of recall of events, but not statements as to whether or not particular incidents actually happened. Corroboration Gaining corroborative evidence of child sexual abuse is clearly problematic, and the majority of research focusing on false memories relies on uncorroborated evidence. Nevertheless, Feldman-Summers and Pope  found some degree of corroborative evidence in 47 per cent of the cases they examined, including the abuser acknowledging some or all of the remembered abuse or someone else reporting abuse by the same perpetrator. Similar levels of corroboration, 41 per cent, were reported in an unrelated survey of British clinical psychologists.

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