The status of "recovered memories"
has caused considerable controversy within the legal system and
without. In this paper, the phenomenon is described and then
evaluated in the light of memory theories and research findings.
The implications for courts and clinicians of the research findings
Over the last decade Western societies have witnessed a dramatic
increase in the number of allegations of sexual and other forms
of abuse said to have occurred many years earlier in childhood.
What is peculiar about many of these allegations of childhood
abuse is that these abuses have been unreported for many years.
For some, this phenomenon represents the recovery of previously
inaccessible memories. The inaccessibility of the memories of
early trauma is explained by the concept of repressed memory.
An unconscious mechanism protects the self of the individual
from being overwhelmed by the memories of the traumas by quarantining
those experience from consciousness. To others these previously
unreported allegations of sexual abuse are nothing more than
unconscious or conscious fabrications. It is the view of these
people that these previously unreported allegations are not authentic,
that is, the memories are false. This phenomenon has become known
by these people as the false memory syndrome.
The objective of this paper is to evaluate the validity of the
competing views about allegations of previously unreported childhood
abuse. To achieve this end, I shall review the relevant theories
and research in memory, beginning with the conceptualisation
of memory, then looking at memory in infancy, childhood, and
adulthood, examining the research on childhood events, the impact
of trauma on memory and then looking at alternative explanations
for recovered memory and assessing their feasibility. On the
basis of the research findings discussed, I have concluded that
there is evidence that there may be preverbal or nonverbal memories,
that there is little research support for the concept of repressed
memory and that alternative explanations for allegations of childhood
abuse surfacing many years later are more feasible.
Memory researchers have found it useful to conceptualise memory
as comprising three stages: the encoding or perceptual stage,
the retention stage, and the retrieval stage. Within this conceptual
framework forgetting can be attributed to failure of any one
of the three stages. There are many factors in the perception
stage that affect the completeness and accuracy of a person's
recall of events. One factor concerns the situational or prevailing
conditions at the critical time. Thus, for example, the extent
of the opportunity a person has to perceive events is critical
to what can be recalled. If the event in question appeared fleetingly,
it is unlikely the observer would be able to recall many details
of that event. Likewise, if the lighting conditions are poor
it is unlikely that the observer would be able to recall great
detail about the visual features of an object or event, and if
it is very noisy the likelihood of the witness hearing what was
said is not high.
Aspects of the observer are also crucial to what can be recalled
and how accurate and complete the account is of the event. If
the observer is tired, then what the observer is likely to see
will be more limited than if the observer is not tired (Brown,
1967; Cohen, 1978; Mackworth 1970). If the observer is under
the influence of drugs, what he or she perceives will be different
and more limited than a person who is not under the influence
of drugs (Spiegel, 1989). Similarly what a person perceives will
differ depending on the level of stress that that person is under
when the event in question is occurring (Easterbrook, 1959; Kuehn,
1974). A number of findings indicates that people under severe
stress may be inaccurate and incomplete in the details they are
able to recall about that event (Loftus, Loftus & Messo,
1987; Maas & Kohnken, 1989). What is recalled about the event
would also depend upon the knowledge and expectation that the
observer has (Bransford & Johnson, 1972; Hastorf & Cantrill,
1954). One and the same incident in a football match is perceived
differently by supporters of opposing football teams. Similarly,
what is perceived of a particular event by children may be quite
different from what is perceived by adults.
Research has shown that the second stage, that of retention,
is also affected by a number of factors. The first of these factors
is time. As a rule, the longer the period of time elapsing since
the event was observed, the less detailed and the less accurate
will be the recall. Even recall of events that have great significance
for an individual has been shown to become less accurate over
time (Neisser & Harsch, 1992). It is not only time that affects
what is retained but also what occurs in the intervening time.
The more experiences we have the greater the difficulty we have
in remembering any specific experience. That is particularly
true when many of the experiences are similar to one another
and/or occur at similar times or places (Powell & Thomson,
in press). The greater the length of time that elapses the greater
difficulty we have in remembering precisely when a particular
event occurred or where it occurred (Powell & Thomson, in
Remembering is also a function of factors occurring during the
retrieval stage. Memories may be inaccessible until the right
retrieval cue is provided (Thomson & Tulving, 1970; Tulving
& Thomson, 1971, 1973). It is as if the retrieval cue unlocks
the door of our memory and details of events that we thought
we had forgotten become available. Inappropriate retrieval cues
may, in fact, inhibit our capacity to recognise or recall a particular
event (Thomson, Robertson & Vogt, 1982; Thomson & Tulving,
1970; Tulving Thomson, 1973). Childhood memories may be inaccessible
simply because the way the person as an adult construes the world
is different from the way that same person construed the world
as a child; thus, the cues available to the adult simply do not
provide access to the childhood memories. The state of mind of
the individual also impacts upon the ease of accessibility to
memories. The person with a high expectation of one particular
event experiences considerable difficulty in recalling events
that do not match that expectation. One other factor that has
been shown to affect accuracy and completeness of recall is the
level of stress at the time a person is trying to remember. By
and large, the greater the stress being experienced by the rememberer,
the less accurate and often the less complete will be the recall
(Chiles, 1958; Idzikowski & Baddeley, 1983).
Memory can also be conceptualised as being a product of two different
remembering processes. One process involves intention and awareness;
the other process is automatic and is driven by the perceptual
properties of the observed event or item. Automatic memory processes
appear to be phylogenetically early (Reber, Walkenfeld &
Hernstadt, 1991) and ontogenetically early and not dependent
on developmental factors for their emergence (Chung & Thomson,
1995; Nadel & Zola Morgan, 1984; Parkin, 1989; Thomson, 1989).
Automatic memory does not require deliberate attention by the
observer when the item or events are experienced, nor deliberate
retrieval strategies when the experience is remembered. In contrast,
intentional memory is dependent on the maturation of specific
structures of the brain (Olson & Strauss, 1984; Schacter
& Moscovitch, 1984; Squire, Knowlton & Musen, 1993).
Intentional memory is a complex process mediated by language,
reliant on attention and utilisation of strategies (Chung &
Thomson, 1995; Parkin 1989: Squire, Knowiton & Musen, 1993;
Thomson, 1989). Intentional memory includes temporal and contextual
information about the to-be-remembered experience, it is facilitated
by strategies at the perception stage and the retrieval stage.
Intentional memory is characterised by ready forgetting and vulnerability
to interference from other experiences (Barnes & Underwood,
1959; Loftus, Miller & Burns, 1978; Underwood, 1957).
Memory in Infancy, Childhood
The development of memory from infancy to adulthood has been
well researched by psychologists. Various studies have shown
that infants as early as several days old are able to recognise
significant figures in their life. It is a moot point as to whether
this recognition occurs through visual recognition, through auditory
recognition, through olfactory recognition or kinaesthetic recognition.
Other studies have shown that very young infants can, like other
organisms, be conditioned. Certain objects, events or persons
which previously evoked no positive or negative response in the
infant can, by being paired with other objects, events or persons
that do elicit negative or positive reaction, then themselves
produce the positive or negative responses. A relevant example
in the forensic setting would be where an infant has frequently
suffered pain by being abused by someone using a screw driver.
Ultimately the sight of a screwdriver will elicit distress and
avoidance behaviour. Indeed this distress and avoidance behaviour
may continue well past infancy into childhood and adulthood.
This sort of remembering is "automatic" and occurs
in the absence of memory of its origin. In contrast infants show
little evidence of intentional memory.
Findings from my own research (Chung & Thomson, 1995; Thomson,
1991) indicate that intentional memory is poorly developed in
infants, gradually improves through preschool years, improves
significantly through primary school years and starts approaching
the adult level during secondary school years. These findings
suggest that probably around about 11 to 13 years of age the
accuracy and completeness of a child's intentional memory is
not too different from that of an adult. As indicated earlier
intentional memory is mediated by, among other things, language.
The impoverishment of language will of necessity restrict the
Other studies have explored the relationship between the age
of the observer, the delay in recall of the events and the suggestibility
of the observer. As a general rule, the younger the observer,
the greater the effect delay has on that person's ability to
recall events (Flin, Boon, Knox & Bull, 1992). Additionally,
the younger the person, the more likely that person's recall
will be influenced by subsequent events and information (Poole
& White, 1993). The longer the delay, the more likely the
recall of the event will be contaminated by subsequent events
(Fivush, Kuebli & Clubb, 1992; Loftus, Miller & Burns,
1978). Thus, when there is a very long delay and the observer
is very young, there is a high probability that that observer's
memory of the event will be modified in some way by subsequent
events. Flavell and Wellman (1976) concluded that very young
children lack what has been called "metacognition",
namely, very young children lack an ability to understand their
own memory processes. This deficiency has been demonstrated in
studies which find that very young children are unable to employ
strategies to help them remember events when these events are
being observed (Flavell, Beach & Chinsky, 1966) and are unable
to bring strategies to bear when they are attempting to retrieve
the information from their memory (Thomson, 1989).
Memories of Childhood Events
Poor memory for early childhood events is a well established
phenomenon (Fivush & Hammond, 1990). This inability to recall
events from early childhood has been called "infantile amnesia".
Few people are able to recall memories of events that have occurred
when they were aged 2 or 3 and indeed most people have only fragmentary
memories of childhood before the age of 5 or 6. In one study
it was found that people could remember very little about the
birth of their sibling, an event likely to be a very significant
event in their lives, if that birth occurred before they were
or 5 years of age (Sheingold & Tenney, 1982). Infantile amnesia
occurs in non-human species, suggesting that developmental changes
in brain structure and function are implicated Spear, 1979).
Our research into early childhood memories had two major findings.
The first finding was the paucity of people's memories for childhood
events. The second finding concerned the difficulty in specifying
or identifying in an unambiguous fashion the events to be recalled.
In our study, to give some temporal marker to participants, we
would specify clearly defined times such as Christmas, Easter
and school holidays. However, what we found was that children
and adults had enormous difficulty in distinguishing one Easter
from another Easter, one school holiday from another school holiday,
and one Christmas from another Christmas.
There is an inherent difficulty in any study that attempts to
examine childhood memories. The difficulty lies in validating
the so-called memory. For the most part one has to rely on either
parents or siblings or other family members to confirm what someone
has recalled about his or her childhood. Where one finds discrepancies
one cannot be certain as to whose version is correct. The major
conclusion that we were able to draw was that it was extremely
difficult to establish what actually did occur in the childhood
of these people.
Memory and Trauma
It is well established that a trauma such as a closed head injury
can produce amnesia Goldstein & Levin 1991). This amnesia
is characterised by inability to remember the traumatic event
and also the inability to remember preceding events, retrograde
amnesia, and inability to recall subsequent events, anteriorgrade
amnesia. Over time there will be recovery of memory for at least
some of the events. This recovery follows a particular pattern,
namely, that memory of events at the furthest distance from the
trauma are first recovered and the last memories to be recovered
are for events closest to the trauma; indeed, frequently these
memories are never recovered. Some researchers and clinicians
claim that psychological trauma can have a similar effect, that
is, that any shock can produce amnesia for the "shocking"
event itself and retrograde and anteriorgrade amnesia for events
preceding and following the "shocking" event. Tulving
(1969) investigated what he called experimental analogue to retrograde
amnesia". He presented university students series of lists
of words. After each list of words was presented, the students
were required to recall as many words as they could. The typical
pattern of recall was that words at the beginning and end of
the list were better recalled than words in the middle of the
list. However, in some lists one of the words presented would
contrast quite dramatically with words which preceded and followed.
In one study the name of the student appeared in the middle of
the list. Tulving found that these contrasting items were extremely
well recalled but this recall was to the detriment of preceding
and following items. The impact of this contrasting item was
greater on the recall of items that preceded the contrasting
item than to the following items. This pattern was clear and
consistent when subjects were asked to recall the items but,
it was somewhat attenuated when the memory test was in fact a
recognition test. However, this phenomenon contrasts with the
patterns found with closed head injury because in the experimental
analogue studies, subjects had very little difficulty in recalling
the event which triggered the amnesia, whereas with the closed
head injuries, people have great difficult in actually recalling
the trauma itself. Further, there are no scientific studies which
show that physical trauma to the body produces amnesia in a fashion
similar to that which physical trauma to the head does.
Explanations for Recovered Memory
In this section, five different explanations for recovered memory
will be explored. These five explanations are repression, suppression,
normal forgetting and cuing, unconscious fabrication and conscious
fabrication. It is concluded that the two most likely sources
of "recovered memories" are normal forgetting and subsequent
cuing and unconscious fabrication.
The concept of repression is a psychodynamic one. Within psychodynamic
theory it is assumed that memories of very painful events are
quarantined from the consciousness of the individual to prevent
the individual by unconscious psychic forces being overwhelmed
by the pain and fear. This process of quarantining painful memories
is known as repression.
Memories which have been repressed are said to only become accessible
to consciousness under very limited circumstances. One such circumstance
is when the person is asleep. Then it is assumed there is a relaxation
of repression and some unconscious memories manage to escape
and become available in dreams. A second circumstance is thought
to occur when the person is hypnotised. It is claimed the act
of hypnosis allows access to the unconscious. A third circumstance
under which repressed memories become accessible is when, through
the effluction of time, the person has a perception of safety
and the unconscious mechanism relaxes and allows the repressed
memory to seep through to consciousness. It is often claimed
that the relaxation of repression occurs when the person who
has the repressed memories is receiving support from a therapist
in a therapeutic situation or under hypnosis.
There are almost insurmountable difficulties with the concept
of repression as the explanation for recovered memories. First,
there are no studies which demonstrate clearly and unequivocally
its existence. Second, some of the recovered memories concern
sexual experiences which did not cause physical pain and were
not perceived as emotionally traumatic at the time they occurred,
for example, fondling and perhaps shallow digital penetration.
These sexual experiences should not have triggered off repression
of memory of these experiences. A third problem experienced by
the repression explanation is that there are many examples of
severe trauma suffered by children and older people which were
never repressed. Indeed, far from repressing memories of these
traumatic events, people report being unable to escape from their
memories of these traumas. Children who have witnessed their
parents being killed have been shown to be unable to forget memories
of this event (Pynoos & Nader, 1989). Survivors of concentration
camps are able to outline in graphic detail many of the horrific
traumas that they experienced during their incarceration in those
concentration camps. A final difficulty for repression as an
explanation for recovered memories is that socially sanctioned
medical interventions which produce pain in the genital area
of the child seldom or never produced recovered memories of those
events (Loftus, 1993).
While a number of authors claim that children often cope with
abuse by forgetting it ever happened (for example, Bass &
Davis, 1988, page 22; Blume, 1990; Courtois, 1988; Olio, 1989;
Putnam, 1991; Sgroi & Bunk, 1988; Wyatt & Newcombe, 1990),
findings from studies which have investigated this claim have
produced conflicting outcomes. Further, the methodology of many
of these studies makes their findings very difficult to interpret.
For example, in the Briere and Conte (1993) study, therapeutic
clients who were part of a sexual abuse treatment program were
asked "During the period of time between when the first
forced sexual experience happened and your 18th birthday was
there ever a time when you could not remember the forced sexual
experience?". The peculiarity of this question is that people
are being asked if they have remembered whether they have forgotten.
In this study, 59% of the clients replied in the affirmative
to the question, leading the authors to conclude that amnesia
was in fact a common phenomena with people who have been victims
of sexual abuse.
Femina, Yeager and Lewis (1990) questioned women at the age of
15 and then 9 years later. They found no evidence at all of these
women becoming amnesic for their abuse. Where in fact the women
failed to report previously reported abuse, subsequent interviews
indicated that their failure was not because they were unable
to remember, rather that they withheld information for social,
or protective, or self esteem reasons. However, the findings
of Femina et al. contrast with those of a more recent study by
Williams (1994). Williams interviewed 129 women who, 17 years
earlier, had been victims of various types of sexual abuse; this
abuse had occurred at some time between infancy and when these
women were 12 years of age. Thirty eight percent of the women
failed to report the abuse that they had experienced in childhood;
12% not only failed to recall the sexual abuse but actually denied
being sexually abused during childhood. Loftus, Polonsky and
Fullilove (in press) interviewed 105 women at a substance abuse
clinic. Of those who reported having experienced some kind of
sexual abuse, 19% reported that at some stage they had not remembered
Even if one accepts that a significant number of persons failed
at some stage to recall being sexually abused, this finding itself
does not necessarily lead to conclusions that the memories were
repressed. Martin and Thomson (1994) have shown that when people
are interviewed on a number of different occasions, what they
recall of the same event differs from occasion to occasion. Details
that were not recalled on an earlier occasion were recalled subsequently.,
indeed 50% of what people recalled 2 months later was never recalled
when they had been interviewed almost immediately after the event
in question. Other researchers have reported similar findings,
that is, they have reported that people recalled details on a
later occasion when they failed to recall them on the earlier
The mechanism of suppression is quite different
from that of repression. With suppression the person is always
aware, can always remember the traumatic event. What occurs with
suppression is that the person, for whatever reason, chooses
not to report the event in question. One reason that the person
may fail to report the event is that he/she is fearful of being
punished or injured by the perpetrator of the abuse. Another
reason may be that the person who has experienced the event is
too embarrassed to talk about the event. Suppression is a simpler
explanation then repression. It does not involve any mystical
unconscious process and is quite often the basis of people not
reporting abuses that they have experienced.
Normal Forgetting and Cuing
The findings of research indicate that all of us at all times
are likely to forget events that have occurred and that the longer
the time that elapses between the occurrence of that event and
the time that recall or recognition of that event is attempted
the more we are likely to forget that event. Further, there is
a body of research which demonstrates that memories that appear
to have been lost can, when the right retrieval cue is given,
become accessible. Tulving and I demonstrated this phenomenon
extensively in the early 1970s Thomson & Tulving 1970; Tulving
& Thomson 1971, 1973). Amnesia for childhood events is likely
to reflect the fact that the cues adults utilise in recall and
recognition do not match the format of information stored in
memory as a child. Failure to remember details of a particular
event and later recovery of those memories does not imply that
there was trauma associated with that particular event.
Unconscious fabrication occurs
when events subsequent to the event in question, or even events
preceding the event in question, are confused with the event
in question, or alternatively, become incorporated as part of
the memory for the event in question. There is extensive research
which bears on this issue (see for example Ceci & Bruck,
1993). In the typical experiment people observe a staged event
and then subsequently receive misleading information about details
of that event. When their memory of the staged event is tested
later, people often claim to have seen things or heard things
that in fact had been suggested to them subsequent to the event.
Further, the likelihood of the memories being contaminated by
subsequent events is increased when the misleading information
is repeated. In a study by Bruck, Ceci, Francoeur & Barr
(1995), children were asked to describe events which had occurred
at a medical examination 12 months earlier. In the intervening
time there had been repeated questioning which included the same
misleading information. These researchers found strong effects
of the misleading suggestions on the children's report of the
medical examination. In a study by Loftus & Coan (in press),
two children, a 14 year old, and two adults were led to believe
that they had become lost in a shopping mall when they were 5
years of age. The 5 subjects were asked to try hard to remember
details of the incident on several occasions. Ultimately 4 subjects
came to recollect details of the suggested event. One subject,
the 14 year old, described at great length how he became separated
from his family in the mall and how he was rescued. He was in
fact quite disbelieving when he was later informed that this
event had never actually occurred.
The role of the therapist has come under close scrutiny in recent
time. It has been claimed suggestions of sexual abuse have emanated
in therapy, either by direct suggestions of the therapist, or
simply by the focus of the therapist's interests and concerns.
Research I have carried out at Edith Cowan University supports
the claim that people's memory for a particular event can be
shaped in more subtle ways than via direct suggestions. In my
studies I have demonstrated that interviewers particular expectations
of what might have occurred affects the types of questions that
they ask the observer and, in turn, these types of questions
affect what the observer reports of the original event. Further,
on subsequent interviews, when asked to recall the original event
the observers are more likely to recall what they previously
reported than what they had actually observed.
Lindsay and Read (1994) list five characteristics that are relevant
to unconscious fabrication. First, memory suggestibility increases
with delay between the event in question and the attempt to remember
that event. Second, adoption of misleading information by the
observer is directly related to the status of the person providing
the misleading information. Third, repeating misleading information
increases the likelihood of the memory of the event being distorted.
Fourth, the more plausible misleading information the more likely
that account will be incorporated as part of the observer's report
of the event. A fifth characteristic related to recoveries of
memories of childhood sexual abuse is the ambiguity of the information
to be remembered. The more ambiguous the information is, the
more confused the information is, the more likely the misleading
information will contaminate the recall of the event.
The final explanation to be offered
for what is being termed recovered memories is when sexual abuse
is alleged to have occurred and a complainant knows that that
abuse never did occur. Such allegations are malicious and the
complainant is generally aware that these allegations are untrue.
Repressed Memories or False Memories?
As is apparent from the foregoing
discussion, when a person reports sexual abuse which is said
to have occurred in childhood and has failed to report that previously,
there are number of explanations for this phenomenon. Without
further information, one is not able to conclude that the report
represents a recovered memory of earlier abuse, nor is one able
to say that this report is a false memory. There is nothing about
the quality of a report that would allow one to determine whether
or not that report was based on memories that were for many years
repressed, whether that report was based on memories that for
a number of years were simply inaccessible, whether that report
was based on memories that were always available but the person
reporting them simply failed to report the abuse, or whether
or not the report was based on fabrication. While interesting
claims have been made about the capacity of psychologists to
distinguish between reports of actual events and reports that
are based on fabrication (Yuille, 1989), these claims have yet
to be substantiated. Because there is no clear way of discriminating
between authentic memories and fabricated memories, courts, and
indeed clinicians, must look to other means to make their judgements.
Claims that these reports can be substantiated by other behavioural
characteristics of the person alleging the abuse, such as the
manner of the client's speech or intensity of emotions, have
little scientific support.
At the end of the day, the clinician is in no different position
from members of juries who must seek independent evidence to
corroborate the authenticity of witnesses' evidence. The members
of a jury in Western Australia found themselves with little or
no corroborative evidence to support extensive allegations by
two women of childhood abuse by their father. Not one of the
charges was sustained, the accused was acquitted on some of the
charges and, on the remainder, the jury was unable to come to
a decision. It would appear prudent that clinicians, at the very
least, suspend judgement about what actually has occurred when
clients report previously unreported childhood abuse. The consequences
of drawing premature conclusions, both for the client and significant
others in the client's life, are likely to be far-reaching and
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