False memories: Remembering things that didn’t happen - Sovereign Health Group
Articles / Blog
05-17-16 Category: Memory, Mental Health, Trauma

Trauma can affect memory

It was a horrifying case, made more so by its setting: a preschool. Hundreds of children sexually abused, and a long list of other unspeakable allegations: animal sacrifices, hidden tunnels, satanic rites and conspiracies.

The McMartin preschool trial ran for six years, was the longest and most expensive criminal trial in U.S. history, and ended with all charges being dropped. It was also the first example of a distressing trend.

During the 1980s and 1990s, there was a moral panic in the U.S. over satanic ritual abuse, which sociologists came to refer to as “Satanic panic.” Driven by sensationalist accounts in the media, many communities in the U.S. lived in fear of devil-worshipping cults, evil conspiracies and horrific attacks on children. When brought to court, most of the cases ended in acquittals and dropped charges because the accusers – many of whom were children – were often coerced or pressured into making false accusations.

Memory can be a tricky thing, and the idea of false memory is hard to digest. How can people remember something that didn’t happen?

Memory isn’t always accurate

Recovered memories have been the subject of controversy for a long time. Memory isn’t always as concrete as people imagine it. A study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2015 provides an excellent example. In the study, researchers were able to convince some of their subjects they had participated in certain crimes, some of which involved weapons.

Also, memory can be strongly affected by outside influences, including sleep deprivation. A study done at the University of California, Irvine found sleep-deprived subjects were more likely to remember false information than those who received a full night’s sleep.

Brown University’s Recovered Memory Project examines the subject of false and recovered memories further.

Trauma can affect memory too

People who have undergone severe childhood trauma often have damaged memories. In 1999, researchers from Yale University, the University of California at Berkeley and the Veterans Administration Medical System in Connecticut examined how memory worked in those who reported childhood abuse. The researchers interviewed 63 people consisting of three groups:

  • 11 men and 16 women who did not have a history of mental disorders or childhood abuse
  • 23 women who had a self-reported history of severe childhood sexual abuse and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • 13 women who had a self-reported history of severe childhood sexual abuse but did not have a diagnosis of PTSD.

The study participants were then read lists of words with critical lures, words that were not present in the original list of words. For example, for the critical lure “chair,” participants might be read words commonly associated with chairs, like “kitchen,” “furniture,” or “sitting.” Next, the subjects were told to write the words down as a test of their memory, first writing down the last words they heard in order and then filling in the rest in any order.

After six lists of words, the subjects then took another test where they would see words on a sheet. They were asked how confident they were that each word occurred during the previous tests. The words shown included the critical lures that didn’t appear in the original tests.

The results showed the women with both a self-reported history of child sexual abuse and PTSD had a high rate of false recognition of words which did not appear during the tests. To the researchers, the results suggested PTSD can strongly affect an individual’s memory.

The Sovereign Health Group is a leading provider of mental health and substance abuse care. Our staff of compassionate experts treat their patients as individuals, ensuring the best chance at a lasting recovery. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at news@sovhealth.com.

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