Memories of child abuse, long buried, but suddenly recovered in therapy, have been a source of controversy for some time now. The fear is that such memories are false; that they are the product of suggestion, hypnosis, visualisation or other therapeutic technique.
Now Elke Geraerts and colleagues have cast fresh doubt on the reliability of these therapy-recovered memories. They found that such memories are dramatically less likely to be corroborated by third parties or other evidence, than are lost memories of child abuse recovered outside of therapy, or abuse memories that were never forgotten.
Seventy-one participants with never-forgotten memories of child abuse, and 57 participants with recovered memories responded to a newspaper advert posted by the researchers. They were interviewed in detail about possible corroborating evidence for their abuse, such as a third party who learned about the abuse soon after it happened, or another person who reported having been abused by the same alleged perpetrator.
Significant corroborating evidence was found for 45 per cent of the 71 participants who had never forgotten their memory of having been abused, and 37 per cent of the 41 participants who, at some point outside of therapy, had recovered a lost memory of being abused. But in dramatic contrast, corroborating evidence wasn't found for any of the 16 participants who recovered their memories of abuse in therapy.
And yet the groups didn't differ on many variables that might explain this difference in evidence, such as age when abused, severity of abuse, or how much they talked about the abuse with others. In fact, the only difference between the recovered-memory groups, aside from the amount of corroborating evidence, was that the participants who recovered their memories in therapy were less surprised by their newly discovered memories.
The researchers said their findings offered support for both sides of the recovered memory debate. While memories recovered in therapy appeared to be false, the corroborating evidence for memories recovered outside of therapy suggested that some discontinuous memories can be genuine.
Geraerts, E., Schooler, J.W., Merckelbach, H., Jelicic, M., Hauer, B.J.A. & Ambadar, Z. (2007). The reality of recovered memories. Corroborating continuous and discontinuous memories of childhood sexual abuse. Psychological Science, 18, 564-568. (link is to full text pdf).
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.
Photo credit: Stacy Braswell