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False Memory Syndrome

There’s been some mentions of “False Memory Syndrome” on this ng, specifically, allegations that UFO witnesses or Roswell witnesses are suffering from it. Seeing as my interest in UFO reports lies mainly in the psychological/ sociological/philosophical effects they have, I thought I’d post some info I’ve gathered.

First off: there is no recognized psychological syndrome known as False Memory Syndrome. The fact that FMS has become nearly a household word is largely due to the efforts of the False Memory Syndrome Society, an organization of parents and others accused of abuse based on “repressed memories” recovered by victims, and others concerned that recovered memories are not reliable. Giving it a snappy name like “False Memory Syndrome” makes it sound like a real psychological phenomenon, but it does not make it one in reality. Recovered memories may indeed be unreliable, but the case is far from closed. Discussing “False Memory Syndrome” at this point in the research is about as scientific as talking about cellulite.

The name most often brought up in discussions of distorted or invented memories is Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a researcher on memory, specifically its malleability. In “The Myth of Repressed Memory” she discusses her findings, and her opinion that memories can be invented out of whole cloth, complete with symptoms of trauma that never occured (that the invented memories CAUSE the traumatic symptoms). In this book and in other articles, she talks about her experiments getting people to change details of their memories when prompted, and in constructing memories of events that never occured. In the oft-quoted “Lost in a Mall” experiment, she got children and adults to remember being lost in a mall, when they never had been. Six out of twenty-four subjects remembered the non- events. Of course, eighteen out of twenty four – 75% – did not. But 25% is still a significant result.

Balanced against Dr. Loftus are the findings of Lenore Terr, MD, who believes that, while memories can sometimes be invented, traumatic symptoms cannot. She exposed the parentally-induced invented memories of one child in a court case against two doctors, based on the fact that the girl’s testimony lacked details of things that the girl would not have known about otherwise (like teh actual mechanics of sex) and the girl’s own lack of traumatic symptoms (like phobias about handcuffs) that would otherwise be expected to develop.

Clearly more research on memory is needed. I don’t see how anyone can be certain, at this point, of the reliability or lack thereof of memories, repressed or otherwise.

It is premature to speculate if UFO reports, complete with symptoms of trauma and strong emotional reactions, could be invented. Research on memory clearly will have a bearing on abduction reports, for instance. Why someone would accuse Roswell witnesses of FMS, who never repressed anything, is beyond me. We lack hard data about how much normal memory, particularly of striking events, operates.

Recent research indicates, however, that memories of trauma can be repressed. In a study by Linda Williams of the University of New Hampshire, 129 women who’d been hospitalized for abuse related injuries, 20 had no memory of the events, with the younger and more severe abuse victims more likely to forget. And a national survey of adults who’d been through trauma as a child, including abuse, auto accidents, floods, etc, 20% had a period of amnesia for the events, and another 20% had blocked out details that they later recovered. These went across all ethnic, social and gender differences (contrary to the FMS Societies contention that only middle-class white women in therapy recover memories).

One thing I found interesting is that, in 1995, out of eleven articles on FMS, six of them appeared in Skeptical Inquirer. And Elizabeth Loftus also refers to herself and others who believe there’s no such thing as repressed (true) memories as “skeptics.” She also uses alien abductees as a “standard of falsehood,” holding up their stories as such *obvious* examples of invention that they throw doubt on recovered memories of abuse. The intellectual dishonesty of this – begging the question, assuming what you are trying to prove – is appalling. I, myself, will wait until Dr. Loftus’s experiments are repeated by less biased researchers before I place my full trust in them. No one knows if alien abduction stories are invented, witnesses, or whatever – to assume what we do not know is hardly scientific.

In short, where memories and False Memory Syndrome are involved, the jury is not only still out; the evidence has barely begun to be presented.


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