False Memory Syndrome

False Memory Syndrome

by Dr Emma Gray - 22nd December, 2014

Repressed Memories

To understand what False Memory Syndrome it is important to first understand what a repressed memory is. Repressed memories where first identified by Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and are believed to be memories that have been blocked out because they are associated with a traumatic event.

The theory is a controversial one with some psychologists dismissing the idea due to considerable evidence that the difficulty with traumatic memories for most people is there intrusiveness, for example in the case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) where sufferers experience recurrent flashbacks and nightmares to the traumatic event.

However, there is some research that indicates that memories of traumatic incidents (e.g. childhood sexual abuse) may be forgotten and that these memories can be spontaneously remembered.

False Memory Syndrome is believed to be the result of Recovered Memory Therapy, hypnosis, sedation or probing questions which lead to the creation of a memory of a traumatic event that did not occur. Memory has been shown at times to be unreliable and inaccurate and human being are very suggestible, however, this is not to say that all repressed memories are false. The use of Recovered Memory Therapy or related practices are now cause for malpractice.

How to Determine the Authenticity of Repressed Memories

The American Psychiatric Association states that without corroborating evidence it is impossible to determine the authenticity of memories recovered in therapy. However the following may go some way to help those involved assess the accuracy of repressed memories of childhood trauma recovered years after the event:

1. The existence of similar reports by other victims of the same perpetrator

2. The presence of chronic mental health problems including major depression, anxiety, conduct disorder, substance misuse, suicidal behaviours and eating disorders.

3. How the memory was recovered and the qualifications and experience of the therapist.

4. The process of the recovery; traumatic memories are initially retrieved in a dissociative form with affective and sensory elements being recovered without a narrative. A personal narrative will then slowly emerge sometimes preceded by flashbacks to the trauma.

For more information on repressed memories, childhood trauma and False Memory Syndrome, contact our team of Clinical and Counselling Psychologist at The British CBT & Counselling Service.


Dr Emma Gray

Dr Emma Gray

I am often the first person with whom my patients share significant and intimate thoughts and memories; I never take that privileged position for granted nor the opportunity to help someone to feel better about themselves and discover a more fulfilling life. One of my colleague once described me as natural psychologist; I guess she was alluding to the fact that I feel at ease being a therapist, I can empathise with people’s distress and discomfort but don’t feel overwhelmed by it, I can understand their problem and know how to help, it has always just felt like what I should be doing.


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