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The Weight of Recovered Memories March 7, 2007

Posted by Johan in Developmental Psychology, Rants.

In a current trial in Portsmouth, a sailor has accused another sailor of rape, after recovering memories of the event in therapy. The sailor recovered these memories a few weeks after the events allegedly took place, with the help of a technique called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR). As I understand it, EMDR is based on psychoanalytic ideas about traumatic memories being insufficiently or inappropriately processed, and stored in an isolated network – a fancy re-writing of the concept of Freudian repression, you might argue. The exact method of therapy goes something like this:

[…] the client attends to the disturbing memory in multiple brief sets of about 15-30 seconds while simultaneously focusing on the dual attention stimulus (e.g., therapist-directed lateral eye movements, alternate hand-tapping, or bilateral auditory tones). Following each set of such dual attention, the client is asked what associative information was elicited during the procedure. This new material usually becomes the focus of the next set.

Almost sounds plausible, until you realise that it’s actually good old free association, given a fancy new outfit.

The striking thing about the BBC story is that apparently, courts are still considering testimony from people who claim recovered memories, after all the controversy. Part of the reason why psychoanalysts are able to insist that the possibility of recovered memories is an open question is that the basic premise is very hard to test. Most recovered memories are not of the kind that are easily corroborated. It would probably be unethical to subject people to traumatic experiences and later check if they have repressed the memory of it.

Still, a paper by Clancy et al (2000) suggests that to at least some extent, impressionability plays a role in these cases. Clancy et al recruited 4 groups of participants: One group reported recovered memories of sexual abuse as children, another group believed they had been victimised but had no memories, a group that had been victimised and had always remembered, and finally a group with no memories of sexual abuse. The participants performed a task where they were presented with lists of semantically associated words, after which recognition for these words was measured. Crucially, the recognition test contained several items that were semantically related to the items in the lists, but had not actually been presented previously.

The group who claimed to have recovered memories of sexual abuse had the highest false alarm rate, that is, they were more inclined than the other groups to develop an illusory memory of having seen the related words before. It need not be spelled out that the implications are pretty damning for those who believe that false memories are generally genuine.

However, it’s still worth emphasising that group level data are not necessarily applicable to the individual. While the results by Clancy et al suggest that individuals with recovered memories appear to be more suggestible than others, this does not necessarily hold true for all cases. There have been cases where recovered memories have been corroborated by other evidence quite convincingly, most famously perhaps the case of Ross Cheit, a professor of political science at Brown University who recovered memories of sexual abuse as a child. Cheit was able to confront his attacker and obtain a confession, which he then used to prosecute his tormentor, almost 30 years after the events took place (for a full account, see Shacter, 1997).

So to conclude: while it would be unreasonable to reject recovered memories outright, we do have a problem if they are given more weight than other testimony, and problems of suggestibility have to be considered. Due to the nature of memory recovery therapy, where the patient is often helped by the therapist to produce an elaborate and consistent story, testimony may appear stronger than it would otherwise.

Therapists focusing on this area are most certainly quacks, regardless. It’s noteworthy that Cheit, the classic example of the reality of recovered memories, had his own realisation spontaneously, without seeing a therapist.


Clancy, S.A., Schacter, D.L., McNally, R.J., & Pitman, R.K. (2000). False Recognition in Women Reporting Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse. Psychological Science, 11, 26-31.

Shacter, D.L. (1997). Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past. New York: Basic Books.


Apparently the sailor was convicted.



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