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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]


A false memory is a memory of an event that did not happen or is a distortion of an event that did occur as determined by externally corroborated facts.


It is common experience that memory may be unreliable to some degree. Our sense of identity, of who we are and what we have done, is tied to our memories, and it can be disturbing to have those challenged. Amnesia, Alzheimer's disease, and post-traumatic stress disorder (also known as “shell-shock”) provide examples of dramatic loss of memory, with devastating effects on the sufferer and those around them.

Memory is a complicated process, only partly understood, but research suggests that the qualities of a memory do not in and of themselves provide a reliable way to determine accuracy. For example, a vivid and detailed memory may be based upon inaccurate reconstruction of facts, or largely self-created impressions that appear to have actually occurred. Likewise, continuity of memory is no guarantee of truth, and disruption of memory is no guarantee of falsity. Finally, memory is a reconstructed phenomenon, and so it can often be strongly influenced by various biases, such as: subjective or social expectation, emotions, the implied beliefs of others, inappropriate interpretation, or desired outcome.


If a person remembers an event that lacks another witness or corroborative physical evidence, due to lack of perfect accuracy in most memories, the validity of the memory may be questioned if it would have a significant impact on others. It might be said that absence of evidence does not in fact constitute the non-existence of evidence, but validation has high priority in such situations, such as courts of law or military situations. For instance, one might say that they have witnessed scores of an enemy army over the hillside. As difficult as it may be to disprove such a statement outright, the statement cannot be validated until the enemy army is actually validated by corroborating witnesses.

Complications arise when a memory involves trauma inflicted by another. If it is in a reputedly involved third party's interest to deny an incriminating memory, the memory cannot be dismissed merely on the strength of such a denial. Likewise, the memory alone does not warrant an accusation of the third party—hence need for external corroborative evidence.

The origin of false memories is controversial. Hypnosis can be used to form false memories because this technique can lead to fantasizing and can increase the subjective certainty of fantasy. Research suggests that at least some false memories are formed through rehearsal, or repetition, of an event that has been confirmed as fantastic: after repeatedly thinking about and visualizing an event, a person may begin to “remember” it as if it had actually occurred. Upon questioning, such a person might confidently recall the event when in fact it is merely ''''previous '''visualizations''''''' that make it seem familiar. Rehearsal is the strongest mechanism of moving short-term memory into long-term memory. Naturally, the rehearsal of incorrect information leads to the formation of an incorrect long-term memory. This applies to both implanted and real memories. For example, many people have experienced the phenomenon of learning that a childhood memory actually happened to a sibling.

Research suggests that memory involves reconstruction, not just recall. For example, a child remembers standing beside a fence overlooking an eerie looking valley. As an adult, the real eerieness of the valley may be falsely remembered as containing a dead body, when in fact the child witnessed a homeless man sleeping under the trees. This particular memory would represent an inaccurate reconstruction.

Many proponents of recovered memories emphasize the importance of distinguishing between ordinary and traumatic memory. Studies show that memories can be implanted, but we lack studies on implanted traumatic memories and their related effects—such as post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative identity disorder—because such studies would be unethical.

False memory syndrome

False memory syndrome (FMS) is the term for the hypothesis describing a state of mind wherein sufferers have a high number of highly vivid but false memories, often of abusive events during their childhood. This condition has been studied, and sufferers have confessed to “entirely made up stories.” However, the DSM-IV does not recognize FMS, although the forgetting of traumatic events constitutes several of the manual's diagnostic criteria for PTSD. The debate over FMS centers largely around the topic of child abuse, wherein alleged victims are said to experience dissociation, which causes repression of the traumatic memory until later in life, when the memory resurfaces either naturally or with the aid of a professional. Many advocates of FMS argue against both methods of memory recovery, claiming that such professionals as therapists and psychiatrists accidentally implant false memories. Specific therapies considered by some to be pseudoscientific (such as past lives therapies) have been explained with reference to false memory syndrome. The term and concept were popularized, though not invented, by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF).

The Courage to Heal is a book that has received much controversy over the years, as some believe it encourages the recovery of repressed memories as a healing technique. Some retractors have blamed the book for encouraging them into memory confabulation.[2]

Ultimately, it is undeniable that true memories are often forgotten. The difficulty comes in deciding whether a memory which has been recovered or spontaneously recollected, is accurate and correctly interpreted, or not.

Prominent examples


In July of 1978, 44 year old Mary Bowman died in her bedroom with large quantities of alcohol and valium in her system. Her daughter, five at the time, would recall 20 years later in 1998 that her father had abused both her and her mother when she was young. She also "recovered" memories of an assault on her mother that ended with her father force-feeding her pills and booze on the night of her death.

As charges were being filed, the investigation turned up evidence that the account given by the daughter was inconsistent (both in itself and with established facts of the original autopsy and body exhumation).[1] This case is one of many [2][3] where false memories led to murder accusations or formal charges.

Sexual abuse

False memory has figured prominently in many investigations and court cases, including cases of alleged sexual abuse. There is no scientific way to prove that any of these recollections are completely accurate.

In the 1980s, day care sexual abuse hysteria based on recovered memories resulted in the imprisonment of some of the accused parents. Most of these convictions were reversed in the 1990s, and there are cases in which recovered-memory therapists have been successfully sued by former clients for implanting false memories. [3]

Many individuals who were led to believe in things that they later were able to show did not happen have retracted allegations of such abuse (for instance, [4]). Known as "retractors", they are sometimes vilified as being "in denial" about the "real abuse they suffered and want to forget about" by advocates of recovered memory therapy (see below), a suggestion which many find offensive.[5]

Alien abduction and past life therapy

Other reputed instances of therapist-implanted false memory involve alien abductions and past life regression. These cases are cited as proof that certain methods can induce false memories.

Psychologist Stephen Jay Lynn conducted a simulated hypnosis experiment in 1994, asking patients to imagine they had seen bright lights and experienced lost time. 91% of subjects who had been primed with questions about UFOs stated that they had interacted with aliens. [6]

Harvard University professor Richard McNally has found that many Americans who believe they have been abducted by aliens share personality traits such as New Age beliefs and episodes of sleep paralysis accompanied by hypnopompic hallucinations. These experiences prompted the individuals to visit therapists, who would frequently suggest alien abduction as a cause. The individuals readily accepted the explanation and in laboratory experiments exhibited stress symptoms similar to those of Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.[7] The experiment led McNally to conclude, "Emotion does not prove the veracity of the interpretation."[8]

In the United States, in the 1980s, a wave of false allegations erupted as a result of the use of recovered memory techniques in cases of Satanic ritual abuse.[9] Hundreds of psychotherapists began teaching that adult stress was a sign that a person was sexually abused by their parents and neighbors. Using putative techniques to "recover" these lost memories, hundreds of people eventually were convinced by their therapists that they were abused by Satanic priests, these Satanists being their own family or kindergarten teachers. Hundreds of people were convicted of these "crimes" and put in jail. From the late 1990s onward a skeptical reappraisal of these recovered memory techniques has shown that these were not recovered memories at all, but rather created memories. Most of the people convicted on such charges have since been freed.[10]

Criticisms of recovered memory therapy

Although there is genuine concern that important memories may be buried and need uncovering, there is concern that the goal of neutral truth may be forgotten, compared to the belief that they must exist and be found, and that lives are therefore devastated by the pressure to find such memories when such events often may not have happened, or may be misinterpreted.

Critics, such as FMS advocates, claim that recovered memory therapists often have a non-neutral interest in proving that such experiences happened, and use techniques similar to those used by cults and interrogators which are known to produce mental confusion such as:

  • keeping information from their clients that could place their recovered memories in doubt
  • assuming by default that repressed memories exist in the client
  • relying upon techniques based upon suggestibility rather than ones which neutrally explore the client's experience
  • mentally isolating people from their previous social support (families and so on)
  • viciously attacking opponents, insinuating that they are practitioners of Satanic ritual abuse or that they endorse the sexual abuse of children

Critics of recovered memory therapy, like Richard Ofshe, Ethan Watters (Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, And Sexual Hysteria) and Elizabeth Loftus (The Myth of Repressed Memory), view the practice of "recovering" memories as fraudulent and dangerous. They base this assertion on several claims:

  • Traumatic experiences which obviously have happened, such as war time experiences, are not "repressed"—they are either forgotten or remembered clearly in spite of attempts to suppress them.
  • The "memories" recovered in RMT are highly detailed. According to RMT literature, the human brain stores very vivid memories which can be recalled in detail, like a video tape. This belief contradicts virtually all research on the way memories work.
  • The patient is given very extensive lists of "symptoms" including sleeplessness, headaches, the feeling of being different from others etc. If several of these symptoms are found, the therapist suggests to the patient that they were probably sexually abused. If the patient denies this, they are "in denial" and require more extensive therapy. This is a form of Catch-22.
  • During the questioning, patients are openly encouraged to ignore their own feelings and memories and to assume that the abuse has happened. They then explore together with this therapist, over a prolonged period of many months or even years, how the abuse happened. The possibility that the abuse has not happened at all is usually not considered.

According to these critics, RMT techniques used for "reincarnation therapy" or "alien abduction therapy" are comparable to the techniques used in Satanic ritual abuse therapy. To verify the false memory hypothesis, researchers like Elizabeth Loftus have successfully produced false memories of various childhood incidents in test subjects. This is viewed as further evidence that comprehensive false memories can be produced in therapy. The false memories in these studies, however, are ordinary memory (like convincing people they were lost in a mall as a child) and not traumatic memories. It would be highly unethical to subject people to traumatic experiences for experimental purposes when studying traumatic memory.


  • Amos, Jonathan (2003-2-18). "Alien 'abductees' show real symptoms". BBC News. Retrieved 2005-12-26. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  • Ceci, S.J., Huffman, M.L.C., Smith, E., & Loftus, E.F. (1994) Repeatedly thinking about non-events. Consciousness and Cognition, 3, 388-407.
  • Hyman, I.E., Husband, T.H., & Billings, F.J. (1995) False memories of childhood experiences. Applied Cognitive Psychology 9, 181-197.
  • Loftus, E. & Ketcham, K. The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse, St. Martin's Griffin, 1996. ISBN 978-0312141233.
  • Ofshe, Richard and Watters, Ethan Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994
  • Pendergrast, Mark. Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives, Upper Access,Inc, 1995. ISBN 0-942679-16-4.
  • Perina, Kaja (March/April 2003). "Alien Abductions: The Real Deal?". Psychology Today. Retrieved 2005-12-26. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  • Roediger, H.L. & McDermott, K.B. (1995). Creating false memories: Remembering words that were not presented in lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. 21, 803-814. Full Text (PDF).

See also

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