Through various techniques of regressive therapy and hypnosis, counselees are uncovering what they believe to be true memories to find out why they are the way they are. However, research on memory does not support the claims about repressed memories of trauma being accurately and indelibly imprinted through years of being forgotten. Instead, research on memory indicates that the very act of remembering involves creativity and imagination.
People do not generally remember every word said in a conversation, though they may remember certain parts. Nor do they remember every detail or fact. In comparison to the entire event, they only recall a few facts that were significant. Then, as they remember, they fill in those details that seem to make sense and complete the picture with what Dr. Elizabeth Loftus calls “probable inferences.” She explains:
This process of using inferences and probable facts to fill in the gaps of our memories has been called “refabrication,” and it probably occurs in nearly all of our everyday perceptions. We supply these bits and pieces, largely unconsciously, to round out fairly incomplete knowledge.1
Thus, even without interference or suggestion there is a certain amount of creativity in remembering.
However, with certain interferences, suggestions, or cues there is even a greater amount of creativity to the extent of creating false memories. In her book Memory, Loftus describes an experiment conducted with a series of slides showing the sequence of an automobile-pedestrian accident. She gives this information about what the subjects saw on the slides:
A red auto was traveling along a side street toward an intersection at which there was a stop sign for half of the traffic and a yield sign for the remaining traffic. The slides showed the auto turning right and knocking down a pedestrian who was crossing at the crosswalk.2
After the subjects viewed the slides, an experimenter questioned them about what they had seen. Some of the subjects were asked questions that included incorrect information. Others were asked questions which included correct information. Those who had been fed wrong information through the questions did poorly on recall and thought they had actually seen a slide with the information that had been suggested in the questions. Through this and other experiments, researchers have demonstrated that when false information is introduced, the memory can be altered.3
Hypnosis and Memory
When similar experiments have been conducted under hypnosis the results are even worse, since hypnotized people are even more susceptible to suggestion. Loftus says that this research shows that “hypnosis does not reduce retrieval difficulties; it does not allow people to retrieve a true memory.”4 Numerous research studies show that what is remembered under hypnosis is just as likely to be false as it is to be true. Dr. Martin Orne, a well-known researcher of hypnosis says, “Hypnotic memory is clearly less accurate than normal waking recall.”5
Dr. Bernard Diamond, professor of law and clinical professor of psychiatry, says research demonstrates that hypnotized people “graft onto their memories fantasies or suggestions deliberately or unwittingly communicated by the therapist” and that “after hypnosis the subject cannot differentiate between a true recollection and a fantasy or a suggested detail.”6 Loftus found that after such experiments as described above, subjects continued to recall the false memory rather than what they initially saw.7 Yet countless therapists, including Christians, use hypnosis in their search for hidden memories that supposedly will unlock secrets to explain present behavior.
While there is strong evidence that we do not remember everything totally accurately even under normal recall, there is also strong evidence that we do not tend to forget significant events in our lives. We may try to forget horrible experiences and we may reduce their impact, but the popular idea of a vast number of people having repressed memories of past abuse is just that—a popular idea. Research does not support that kind of amnesia to the extent that it is being promoted. Rather than being common, such amnesia is quite rare. Nevertheless, faith in repressed memories is widespread, thanks to such books as The Courage to Heal, with such statements as: “If you don’t remember your abuse you are not alone. Many women don’t have memories, and some never get memories. This doesn’t mean they weren’t abused.”8
While one cannot conduct experiments in which memories of abuse are implanted during the experiment because of the resulting damage to the subjects, Loftus has conducted research on people (of wide age ranges) who were told by a relative that they were lost when they were five years old. According to Loftus, after the subjects were convinced they had been lost, they not only remembered the details told to them, but added even more details. The evidence of the power of suggestion to create the memory even without the use of hypnosis is amazing.9
Research on memory is extremely important in terms of Christians seeking counseling.10 If the therapy is regressive in that it searches the memory for past events to explain present behavior, there is a strong possibility that false memories will be created. And once they are created they are often stronger than true memories. This does not mean that all recall is false, but that there is a very great possibility that false memories will be created, especially if a therapist is looking for something in the past that he thinks is causing present “symptoms.” Therefore, the assumption is that numerous individuals have been abused and that they have repressed the memories. That is a myth without evidence.
Right now there is a large therapeutic movement to uncover “forgotten” sexual abuse and even “satanic ritual abuse.” The authors of The Courage to Heal (more than 500,000 copies sold) supply a long list of symptoms, of which at least one or more would apply to nearly everyone.11 Even though they have no research support, the authors are fully confident about their list of symptoms:
If you are unable to remember any specific instances. . . but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did. . . If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were.12 (Emphasis added.)
Here is an example of one of the exercises suggested in The Courage to Heal:
Take an event in your family history that you can never actually find out about. It could be your father’s childhood or the circumstances in your mother’s life that kept her from protecting you. Using all the details you do know, create your own story. Ground the experience or event in as much knowledge as you have and then let yourself imagine what actually might have happened.13 (Emphasis added.)
What kind of method is that for finding true memories and for finding any kind of valid evidence of what truly happened during a person’s childhood? Exercises such as these are ways to form false memories.
In her article, “Beware the Incest-Survivor Machine,” social psychologist and researcher Dr. Carol Tavris says that authors of such books seem to be ignorant of scientific research in this field, that they “all rely on one another’s work as supporting evidence for their own,” and that they quote one another for further support. Tavris says:
If one of them comes up with a concocted statistic—such as “more than half of all women are survivors of childhood sexual trauma”—the numbers are traded like baseball cards, reprinted in every book and eventually enshrined as fact. Thus the cycle of misinformation, faulty statistics and unvalidated assertions maintains itself.14
A large number of people undergoing psychotherapy are discovering memories that they did not know were there. And one of the great problems is that there is no way for the person to really know whether or not the memory is true or false. One that is created with strong emotional content will feel very real. In fact, it often feels more real than memories of actual events.
Therapy that attempts to help patients recall forgotten memories may include hypnosis, but that is not necessary. There are other techniques that are being taught. One is systematically guiding the process of remembering. Questions are asked to “jog” the memory. However, rather than “jogging” a real memory, they may be supplying the elements for creating new memories. Patients are encouraged to reconstruct events that are hazy and to visualize the location and other physical features. And when the patient begins to sense something the therapist will encourage the next bit of recall through questions that themselves may inadvertently imply incorrect information. In this creative endeavor there is a very strong possibility for suggestions to be made. While the purpose of such suggestions is to help the recall, they are often unintentionally deceptive.
To understand the power of a false memory, think of something you know happened today. Now, what if a person tells you that what you remember did not happen? Or, what if, after you have read this newsletter, someone tells you that it does not exist? That is why it was upsetting for some people who participated in memory experiments when false information was suggested, included in the memory, and then proved wrong. One person, who had seen a videotape of a woman with black hair and then received a suggestion under hypnosis that the woman was blond, said, “It’s really strange because I still have the blond girl’s face in my mind and it doesn’t correspond to her [the one on the videotape].” The person continued, “It was really weird.”15
This also shows the power of hypnotically-enhanced memories. Once a memory has been changed it replaces the original memory. One does not have two competing memories (the old and the new). The original is gone. Even after seeing the evidence, the person continues to see the blond woman when recalling the memory of first seeing the videotape. Even external evidence may not convince some people of the reality of their memories that have been enhanced through hypnosis or other forms of suggestion and guided recall.
Worse than feeling weird or losing inconsequential details of memory is the fact that many people are suffering great pain in the kind of therapy which attempts to dredge up old memories to explain present problems. They are now living with horrible memories of events that probably never happened. And those memories are now defining their lives. They are now victims trying to recover from something that more than likely never happened. Souls are being lost through therapy that is meant to help. Rather than coming to the cross, burdened with sin, countless people are going to therapy as victims. And rather than confronting personal sin and pointing a person to the Savior, such therapists are looking for sins that might have been committed against their clients and point people to their own selves.
If believers in the Lord Jesus Christ would only take confidence in His Word they would not get caught up in psychological counseling that attempts to resurrect the past in order to change the present. Paul declared, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Why are so many people trying to dig up the past? And, why are so many people following the trends of the world and possibly creating new memories that replace and destroy memories of actual events? Why do pastors send members of their flock out to such dangerous nonsense?
This article is not meant to minimize true pain, but rather to point people to the only true remedy for sin and its results. And that is to Jesus Christ and Him crucified. He is the way, the truth and the life. He is the only answer to sin and its devastation.
1 Ibid., p. 40.
2 Ibid., p. 46.
3 Ibid., pp 46-47
.4 Ibid., p. 48.
5 Martin Orne, Psychology Today, February 1984, p. 35.
6 Bernard L. Diamond, “Inherent Problems in the Use of Pretrial Hypnosis on a Prospective Witness,” California Law Review, March 1980, p. 348.
7 Loftus, op. cit., pp. 48-49.
8 Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1988), p. 81.
9 Elizabeth F. Loftus, “The Reality of Repressed Memories” an expanded version of her Psi Chi/Frederick Howell Leis Distinguished Lecture address at the American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, August, 1992. For information about obtaining this paper, write to Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, Department of Psychology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195.
10 For additional research information on false memories, contact the False Memory Foundation, 3508 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104.
11 Carol Tavris, “Beware the Incest-Survivor Machine, The New York Times Book Review, January 3, 1993, p. 1.
12 Bass and Davis, op. cit., pp. 21-22.
13 Ibid., p. 154.
14 Tavris, op. cit.
15 Loftus, op. cit., p. 48.