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How Someone can Get False Memories

Paul McHugh, MD
Chief of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins Hospital

Paper presented at Memory and Reality Conference, April 1993

Memory is a construction of fragments which are then reconstructed into a narrative that makes sense in the here and now.  In doing this we fill in the blanks with information received since the event and this mixes with the original memory until it becomes impossible to separate.  This means that every this we have seen or heard or read can become garbled with our own memories and we will truly believe that it is our own true memory.

Garbled memory can occur in three areas: when the memory is stored (encoded), while it is being stored, and when it is retrieved.  Something could be misunderstood at the time and hence an erroneous memory could be stored.  Memory is subject to deteriation and change over time while in storage.  And our current expectations and beliefs can alter our perception of a memory when it is recalled.  Careful experiments have shown that it is remarkably easy to influence people so that they come to believe in memories that are false.

The AMA considers recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse to be of uncertain authenticity, which should be subject to external verification.  The use of recovered memories is fraught with problems of potential misapplication.  Council on Scientific Affairs American Medical Association, June 16, 1994

The American Medical Association agreed with the American Psychiatric Association that "... there is no completely accurate way of determining the validity of reports in the absence of corroborating information."

Of great concern is the pattern of those who make this change of their identity to that of sexual abuse survivors cutting off contact with any person who might challenge their new memories.  Cutting off contact is a cult-like behavior and not standard therapy practice.


The witch-craze of the 16th and 17th centuries "made clear that validation means something much more than proposing ways — even consistent ways — to make the diagnosis even of something that does not exist.  That is, the witch hunters received explicit and operational ways of identifying witches.  They taught each other and wrote their procedures in a large and influential book.  This book entitled Malleus Maleficarum or the Hammer of Witches spelled out in exquisite detail the kinds of behaviors that characterize the witch and identify the evidence on her body of congress with devils, incubi and succubi.  The Malleus had as its epigraph: Haeresis est maxima opera maleficarum non creders (to disbelieve in witchcraft is the greatest of heresies)

What was learned from this that might illuminate practices with repressed memories?  First: The fact that there is a manual telling how to recognize the manifestations of repressed memories does not confirm them.  It is an exercise in creating a consistent approach to the diagnosis amongst therapists — a uniformity of diagnostic practice and does not validate the presumed abusive experience...

The issue for repressed memories is validation — and validation in every case when it appears ... To treat for repressed memories without any effort at external validation is malpractice pure and simple; malpractice on the basis of standards of care that have developed out of the history of psychiatric service — as with witches — and malpractice because a misdirection of therapy will injure the patient and the family.