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Tuesday, 14 March, 2000, 01:07 GMT
Fresh evidence on 'false memory syndrome'

Recovered memories of abuse are controversial
Most "hidden memories" of traumatic events that re-emerge later in life have not been created by therapy, say researchers.

Recovered memory is still a controversial concept among psychiatrists and psychologists.

Very often, patients come into therapy after they have actually recovered memories

Dr Bernice Andrews
The idea that memories, particularly of sexual abuse as a child, could be deeply repressed but then reawakened by therapy has been the cornerstone of high profile criminal investigations.

Some campaigners have labelled it "false memory syndrome", claiming that in many cases, it is poor therapy which is implanting or contributing to the "memories", leading to false accusations of sexual abuse.

They say that more forceful therapy techniques which include dream interpretation, strongly suggesting a cause of the memory, or even hypnosis may be to blame.

However, Dr Bernice Andrews, a psychologist from Royal Holloway, University of London, closely examined the recovered memories of 236 adults, by quizzing their therapists.

'No scientific evidence'

She found that many of the memories had started returning before the therapy started, rather than during it.

And many of the memories that returned could be confirmed as correct by someone else.

This, she says, appears to point the finger away from poor therapy as a root factor in many of the memories.

Dr Andrews discovered that a third of patients had recovered some memories before starting therapy.

The most common triggers for remembering childhood sexual abuse were events and circumstances involving their own children, events involving physical danger or threat to themselves, or books or media reports on abuse.

It was rare that memories began to return during therapy.

Dr Andrews said that despite the claims of campaigners, no scientific evidence to support widespread false memories had been produced.

'Falsely accused'

"Very often, patients come into therapy after they have actually recovered memories - they find them disturbing," she said.

"Whether these memories are all true or not I don't know, but the idea that they are all recovered during therapy is wrong."

However, the British False Memory Society, which campaigns on behalf of those who say they have been falsely accused of abuse as a result of recovered memory testimony, criticised the study.

Madeline Greenhalgh, a director of the society, said there was "a world of difference" between the process of remembering a traumatic and verifiable event such as a car crash, and the experience of being abused as a child.

She said: "Instead of playing with words, perhaps the authors should compare 'recovered memory' to historical outbreaks of false testimony such as the 'spectral evidence' of dreams, visions and hallucinations that fuelled the convictions in 17th century witch trials."

The study was published in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology.
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13 Oct 99 | Medical notes
Post-traumatic stress disorder factfile
23 Apr 99 | Health
The power of mind over matter
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