Sometimes psychotherapy brings back forgotten trauma. But such memories are not always reliable. Particular caution is required with certain methods.
In the 1980s and 1990s , an unusually high number of adult patients reported to their therapists that they had been sexually abused or suffered other trauma in their childhood .
Previously, suggestive techniques such as hypnosis or dream interpretation were often used to bring out the lost images .
But soon afterwards, a series of experiments by a research group led by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus shook this explanation.
In a famous study, the scientist asked adult test subjects about memories of four childhood events .
One of them, however, never took place
It was about how the participants had temporarily disappeared at the age of five, how they had been lost during a visit with their parents in a shopping center, for example.
With the help of suggestive questioning techniques, the psychologist led a quarter of them to believe that they had actually had this experience: The test subjects had developed fake memories.
Investigations by other working groups soon confirmed how error-prone autobiographical memory can be.
In about 15 percent of the test persons, studies can evoke fake memories that are so convincing that they are comparable to real memory traces, according to a review from 2017 .
Another analysis even comes to 30 percent .
Now memories of a day at the mall can hardly be compared to those of sexual abuse. However, reports from those affected show that memory contents that relate to such terrible events can in rare cases arise artificially, even or especially in psychotherapy.
The first patients in the USA sued their therapists as early as the 1990s. The accusation: you should have awakened fictitious memories in them.
Many of those affected had originally sought treatment for depression or anxiety. Over time, they had come to believe that they had been sexually abused in their childhood.
Later they themselves doubted the new images in their heads because they seemed different from ordinary memories, for example more vivid or more like a dream.
They also differed from memories of other traumas. They withdrew their allegations against their alleged abusers and the courts awarded them damages.
When memories are deceptive
Fake memories usually don’t come about because a therapist has a plan to create them. And they do not arise quickly or in the majority of psychotherapies.
But they can be the result of a chain of circumstances, explains Renate Volbert.
The professor of forensic psychology at the Psychological University Berlin assesses the credibility of statements in criminal proceedings and researches suggestion.
The essence of bogus memories is that one is subjectively convinced that this is exactly how something happened. But that’s still a long way off.
However, it is difficult to distinguish fake memories from real memory contents. They are neither more detailed nor more indistinct.
And they create similar feelings, and can even trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Only in exceptional cases, for example when objective facts prove the opposite, can they be clearly exposed as false. For example, people cannot remember events that occurred in their first two years of life.
Researchers also refer to this phenomenon as childhood amnesia .
“Fake memories are neither created quickly nor in the majority of psychotherapies. But they can be the result of a chain of circumstances”
(Renate Volbert, Professor of Legal Psychology)
Even with the methods of brain research, no reliable distinction can be made.
“Some false memories are recalled a little slower than real ones, and on average we are a little less certain that we actually experienced the events in question.
Such differences can also be seen in the brain, ”says Tobias Sommer-Blöchl, who researches episodic memory at the Institute for Systemic Neurosciences at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf.
“But if I am completely convinced that I have experienced something, there are no longer any neuronal differences in memory retrieval.”
This was confirmed in 2016 by a meta-analysis of studies with functional magnetic resonance imaging .
Can trauma be repressed and brought out again?
For her expert opinion, forensic psychologist Renate Volbert therefore focuses on how the memories came to light in psychotherapy.
And whether there were any influences that could have promoted a fake memory. She considers the assumption that one typically cannot remember traumatic experiences, especially if they are serious, particularly problematic.
The question of whether trauma can be suppressed and brought out again has been debated so passionately by researchers in recent decades that the debate has entered the scientific literature as “memory wars”.
What Memory Experts Says
Some memory experts (including Maastricht University and University College London ) argue about it to this day.
Sigmund Freud already believed in a defense mechanism of memory that lets people forget terrible experiences while they are subconsciously burdened by them.
And even today, four out of five psychology students in the lower semesters believe that traumatic memories are often suppressed, as a survey in the USA from 2011 and 2012 shows.
At least in part, nearly 70 percent of the psychoanalysts surveyed and 84 percent of the general US population agreed. In contrast, only 27 percent of scientifically working psychologists believed that this statement was true.
And only 24 percent of researchers believed that repressed memories could be accurately recovered through psychotherapy – almost 78 percent of the general population believed it.
“If I am completely convinced that I have experienced something, there are no longer any neuronal differences in memory recall.”
(Tobias Sommer-Blöchl, neuroscientist)
Renate Volbert says: Not remembering is at least not a typical consequence of trauma. It is much more likely that people will be flooded with terrible memories.
It is true that some people who were traumatized in their childhood show memory deficits in studies , so they do worse in tests than participants in a control group who are not pre-stressed in this way.
In other surveys, however, they achieve comparable results.
In addition, such experiments only examine the ability to memorize new information. They do not grasp the state of the memories of the traumatic experience itself.
Studies have shown that those affected relatively often incorrectly remember the details of a traumatic situation , although the retrospective often seems particularly vivid and truthful to them. So more emotions do not automatically lead to better memories.
Stress test for memory
Neuroscientist Tobias Sommer-Blöchl also wants to investigate how memory works when it is confronted with a stressful event.
He is currently planning a research project to use the Trier Social Stress Test. The test subjects have to spontaneously expose themselves to an interview, which creates enormous stress.
Previous studies by Oliver Wolf, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the Ruhr University in Bochum, have shown that subjects in such a situation tend to direct their gaze and attention to objects that are relevant to the situation than to objects in the vicinity.
Accordingly, they can also remember such things better afterwards. Sommer-Blöchl would now like to investigate how this information is stored in the brain over eight months: What is transferred to long-term memory?
And how do these memories change over time, depending on how stressful an event was?
So that people can remember something, it must first be stored as a memory trace in the brain.
Information and experiences are stored in very specific connections between the nerve cells, which can later be reactivated – either consciously when we think about it or talk about it, or unconsciously during sleep.
Neuroscience has not yet investigated whether we can suppress and rediscover an (originally stored) experience over a long period of time.
“However, it is known from cognitive psychology that the right cue can bring what has apparently been forgotten back into conscious memory, for example in conversations with old friends or when we watch a film a second time,” says Tobias Sommer-Blöchl.
Renate Volbert also does not rule out the fact that traumatic events cannot be remembered for a long time in individual cases, but that they can then be triggered again by a trigger, for example when you meet a person again who was involved in the trauma.
Not having thought back for a long time, however, is different from saying: I didn’t even know that this happened to me! I thought I had a lovely childhood, and now I know that it was hell on earth, says the forensic psychologist.
She therefore takes a critical look at psychotherapists who certainly assume trauma as the cause of psychological suffering such as depression or anxiety, even if such a trauma is not known at all.
And who then look for unconscious memories with methods that promote a pictorial idea, for example with hypnosis.
“The images created in the head become more and more familiar and easier to call up over time,” explains Renate Volbert.
They could then be mistaken for real memory content. If the psychotherapist also thinks they are true, tormenting sham memories could ultimately arise.
“Clients and therapists should know that there can be bogus memories. And that one should be especially careful about looking for memories. Otherwise you might bring people into terrible biographies, ”says Volbert.
And sometimes for a long time: In 2002, a survey of 20 people who later withdrew their allegations of abuse showed that it took them an average of two months to rediscover their first memories of the alleged experiences in therapy.
However, it took five years for them to conclude that they were fake memories .
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