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Australian False Memory Association (Inc.)

Allegations of Childhood Abuse
Repressed Memories or False Memories?

VOLUME 2, NUMBER, 1 APRIL 1995, pp 97-105.

Donald M Thomson
Department of Psychology
Edith Cowan University
Perth, Western Australia.



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 are discussed.

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.


Conceptualising Memory

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 press).
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 and Adulthood

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 intentional remembering.
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 the abuse.
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 occasion.


   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

     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.

Conscious Fabrication

     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 irreversible.



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Australian False Memory
    Association (Incorporated)

Australian False Memory Association
Caring for Families and Individuals

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