False Memory Syndrome
The Validity of Memories and the False Memory Syndrome
Clients with trauma disorders report a variety of flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and images, and memories. Some of these memories they have always remembered. Some memories have been recovered during the process of therapy or have spontaneously shown up as "flashbacks". These flashbacks and recovered memories continue to be the target of controversy and polarized thinking in many clinical and research circles.
Are these memories true? Can memories be recovered and be completely accurate? Or, are they simply confabulated images, aided by overzealous therapists? Let us take these questions one at a time.
Current research on the effect of trauma on children is quite compelling. Researchers like Schore and Siegal at UCLA have proven that the body sends a hormone called cortisol to the brain during traumatic events. Cortisol has the ability to erase details within the brain. As a result, while the brain may retain the emotional pain and confusion of trauma it may also have no reliable record of what actually happened. Therefore, when we press for actual detailed accounts of past events, the brain gives its "best guess". This best guess is called confabulation. It is not a lie, it is a guess that may or may not be accurate.
Does this mean that we do not believe our clients went through significant trauma? On the contrary, we believe, as we look at their present state of dysfunction, that they experienced significant trauma, neglect, or dysfunction in their lives. This resulted in significant cognitive distortions in the way our clients perceive themselves and those around them. True healing relies on helping them change those distortions and then change the way they interact with other people. Making these changes does not rely on whether or not a memory is true.
Unfortunately, research and treatment of trauma-based disorders is often hampered by the polarized debate occurring in many clinical and research fields. On one side, there are those, often involved in research, who point to the inaccuracies in recovered memories. They have labeled this phenomenon the False Memory Syndrome. They have consistently cited the research as a reason not to trust the absolute veracity of memories.
On the other side, there are a lot of clinicians who focus on healing trauma, based in large part on what the patient is reporting to them. They see significant dysfunction in their clients and vigorously reject the idea that their clients are just "making it up". Further, these therapists are then offended when they are accused of "planting" the memories their clients are reporting.
Our concern is that the debate between these two parties is often acrimonious and divisive. They are often like two armies facing each other across a battlefield, completely prepared to defend their position. As a result, they tend to "hunker down in the trenches" and refuse to look at information coming from the other side. Objective research is then replaced by accusations and heated debate takes the place of constructive discussions.
We believe that there is useful information coming from both camps. We believe that a treatment approach based on cognitive/behavioral principles results in our clients showing measurable growth. At the same time, we look closely at the research concerning memory accuracy that comes to us from all sides of the debate.
While we do not ignore them, memories are not the focus of our treatment. We understand and teach that any given memory may be relatively accurate or inaccurate, "true" or "false". Scientifically, the clinician cannot tell without outside proof that a memory is true. It is equally true, however, that a clinician cannot tell for sure that a memory is false. We simply are not focused on categorizing memories as "true" or "false". Consequently, our treatment plans do not require any such decisions.
Well then, our patients ask, what do we know for sure? These things we know without a doubt:
Our clients have disturbing images and feelings that reoccur.
Our clients have severe cognitive distortions in the way they see themselves and others.
Our clients have a difficult time remaining grounded in the "here and now".
Our clients have significant difficulty finding and maintaining healthy relationships.
Our clients often manifest self-destructive behaviors.
These things we know for sure. We also know that these behaviors rarely come from a healthy, happy, and stable childhood. Finally, we know that as we focus on these issues in therapy, the quality of life improves.
And isn't that the goal?