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How False Memories Form

A Michigan counselor faces a lawsuit from parents who believe the therapist’s techniques gave their daughter false memories of abuse.

By Kate Wheeling


(Photo: sarah/Flickr)

In Michigan, Christian counselor Kathryn Salmi has been fighting a lawsuit brought against her by the parents of a young client, who claim that the therapist’s techniques gave their daughter false memories of sexual abuse. In 2014, an appeals court ruled that counselors like Salmi have an obligation not just to their patients, but to third parties who could be harmed by certain therapy techniques as well. The state’s Supreme Court declined last month to rule on the issue, allowing the lower court’s decision — and the lawsuit — to stand.

The court’s decision marks the latest stand against therapeutic techniques meant to uncover so-called repressed memories, which have experienced a steady fall from favor since their heyday in the early 1990s. The tide began to turn against repressed memory recovery after investigations into an alleged epidemic of sexual abuse revealed instead a wave of therapy-induced false memories. Eventually, former patients began speaking out against recovered memory therapy. Last year in Pacific Standard, Ed Cara wrote about Missouri’s Castlewood Treatment Center — an eating disorder clinic facing several civil malpractice lawsuits from former patients claiming that the center’s techniques left them with harmful false memories.

The former Castlewood patients claimed that, under the influence of hypnosis and psychiatric drugs, they were encouraged to link their current problems to forgotten childhood abuse. The false memories of abuse, according to the suits, exacerbated the emotional distress the patients were already experiencing. But the patients who were incepted with these emotionally disturbing and false memories aren’t the only victims of the discredited technique. As Cara reported:

Although there is no full tally, University of California-Berkeley professor Frederick Crews, who wrote about recovered memory therapy, suggested (conservatively, he says) that one million patients may have been convinced they had recovered repressed memories. Of course, as Crews notes, the number of those affected was far greater; the accusations from each of these patients almost always radiated through families and communities, leading to bewildering and painful estrangements for fathers, mothers, teachers, and others.

While there’s little evidence that people can completely forget highly emotional events, there is plenty of evidence that people can form false memories of emotional events. “People can falsely create, or come to believe, that emotional events occurred that never occurred, people can misremember the details of emotional events, but what they don’t seem to do is have an emotional event occur and then shove it into some basement of their subconscious and not be able to recall it,” says Linda Levine, a psychology professor at the University of California-Irvine. “You don’t see literature on people wholesale forgetting emotional events. Events that are highly emotional to people are typically very well remembered.”

Levine’s latest work on the link between emotion and memory has provided new insights into false memories, including how certain emotions can make false memories more likely. The nature of memory lends itself to alternation, according to Levine.

“The reason that memory doesn’t work like a video tape recording is it’s a reconstructive process,” Levine says. “The way that we make plans and decisions about the future is we take bits and pieces of our memories and put them together to try to imagine what’s going to happen to us in the future.” The same process that allows us to recall isolated parts of our memories to make predictions about the future, however, leaves those memories vulnerable to distortions. Every time we recall a memory, we alter it by viewing the memory through the lens of our current emotions and the experiences we’ve had since the memory was first laid down. But just how does emotion influence memory?

“The reason that memory doesn’t work like a video tape recording is it’s a reconstructive process.”

There’s a general consensus that intense emotions cause our attention to narrow. This phenomenon, sometimes known as weapon focus, explains why, for example, victims of crimes can often describe the weapon used to threaten them in detail, but not what the perpetrator was wearing. Some emotions, however, are more influential than others. Emotions with high motivational intensity — desire, fear, and anger, for example — cause our attention to narrow. These emotions are tightly linked to action — fear of failure, for example, prompts you to study for an exam — and encourage us to zero in our attention on things closely related to our goals. Post-goal emotions, like happiness or sadness, don’t require action other than adjustment to the reality that we either accomplished or failed to accomplish our goals. In other words, pre-goal emotions force us to focus on the trees; post-goal emotions allow us to see the forest. But by focusing on the trees, we become more open to suggestion about our memory of everything else related to the forest. Misinformation creeps into our memories from the periphery. “People are vulnerable to misinformation about features of events that aren’t so central to them or aren’t as important,” Levine says.

That susceptibility to suggestion, coupled with the fact that our memory of both events and our past emotions fades overtime, might lead to the formation of false memories in therapy sessions that rely on repeated re-imagining of the past. “It’s possible that the distress that patients in therapy are feeling about other things might get falsely put on events,” Levine says. And our current emotions about events and even people can color our memories. “A person might’ve had a perfectly happy relationship with a family member, but then come to see that family member more negatively over time and misremember their past feelings,” Levine adds.

The lawsuit against Salmi in Michigan is ongoing, and she asserts that she does not practice repressed memory therapy. While the outcome of that case is still uncertain, there is now some legal precedent, at least in Michigan, for falsely accused friends and family members to go after counselors and psychologists who do still practice the discredited therapy.