Contrary to popular belief, the brain does not record memories like a tape recorder. False memories of sexual abuse can seem perfectly real.
Last April, I wrote a column on the topic of false memories of childhood sexual abuse and the misery that such memories, typically “recovered” during therapy, can cause.
On Friday, in my role as a member of the scientific and professional advisory board of the British False Memory Society (BFMS), I was more than happy to be a signatory to a letter to the archbishop of Canterbury concerning the views expressed by the Rev Pearl Luxon, safeguarding adviser to the Church of England, who is responsible for child protection issues. Luxon apparently accepts her advisers’ assertion that “there is no such thing as ‘false memory'” and that, “It is quite common when people have suffered severe trauma for memory to be patchy and disjointed.”
These are dangerous and uninformed views for someone in such an influential position.
The letter to the Rowan Williams, which I would urge you to read in full for a more informed perspective on the subject of false memories and the truth about memory for traumatic events, concludes by asking how Luxon might have come to adopt such views in the first place.
The sad truth is that such views about the nature of memory are still surprisingly common among people in all walks of life, despite well over a century of scientific research into the way memory works. Luxon asserts that “there is no such thing as ‘false memory’. It is either a memory or it is not.”
I can only assume that such a view must be based upon the erroneous notion that memory in some sense works like a tape recorder or a video camera, accurately recording all that happens around us. According to this view, ‘real’ memories would always be 100% accurate replays of previous events as we originally experienced them. Anything that is not 100% accurate is therefore not really a memory at all, and therefore false memories cannot exist.
A survey last year of more than 600 undergraduates at a Midwestern university in the USA revealed that about 27% believed that memory does indeed operate like a tape recorder. Other surveys show that 36% of us believe that our brains retain perfect records of everything we’ve ever experienced, a mistaken view that, worryingly, is shared by some psychotherapists.
The truth is that memory is always a reconstructive process, not a reproductive one. What we think we recall about events, with degrees of confidence ranging from uncertainty to absolute conviction, is actually a construction based upon a mixture of accurate recollections and gaps filled in upon the basis of our general knowledge and beliefs about what is plausible, our expectations, fragments of recollections of other similar events, and even input from dreams, fantasies and imagination.
Importantly, our confidence in the memory is not a reliable guide to its accuracy. …
For most people, a little reflection on their own personal experiences of memory is enough to convince them that memory does not work like a tape recorder and that false memories do occur. Research into memory, and in particular the processes underlying the formation of false memories, has proved this beyond all reasonable doubt.
The fact that the Church of England official responsible for child protection appears not to have familiarised herself with the evidence on a topic that is central to her role is deeply worrying.
Is the author saying that there is not really as much abuse as the Church thinks? Whatever his point about the abuse, it is important to understand that memory is an active and reconstructive process. We don’t remember events. We remember the last time we remembered the event, and each time we recall, the memory changes a bit, almost always without our realizing that we are morphing the facts to fit our beliefs. I get mental blocks at times. I couldn’t remember the word “jalapeno” a few days ago.