The Controversy over Recovered Memories

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the issue of recovered memories. Since the last century, researchers have had differing opinions on how to interpret and treat recovered memories. Often, these arguments have found their way into courts where judges have faced challenging times of giving verdicts based on accounts from recovered memories. This paper explores the controversies over recovered memories with an aim of refuting the validity of such memories.

Certain terms need definitions in order to comprehend the concept of recovered memories. The terms are repression, recovery, trauma, amnesia, therapy, forgetting. The word amnesia means short term memory loss traumas a result of a psychotrauma (Memon & Young, 1997). It might also refer to loss of memory arising from organic causes. On the other hand, recovered memories may mean the featuring from childhood memories for the start time by the adult people who have failed to remember or tell such events previously (Williams, 1994). Forgetting refers to the loss of information that is already encoded as well as stored in a person’s long-term memory.

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The term repression is vital in ascertaining the presence or absence of supporting evidence in the claims of recovered memories. Freud (1910) was dissonant in using the term. In his initiatory works, Freud (1910) clearly posited that repression consisted of the intentional resentment of upsetting memories, as well as thoughts from an individual’s conscious awareness (in literature, “repression proper” or “suppression” are synonymous to it). Overtime, Freud (1910) began to refer to repression as unconscious defense mechanisms with a primary objective of excluding distressing material from the individual’s conscious awareness. As a result, Freud (1910) distinguished suppression and repression by positing that the former was involuntary while the latter voluntary. Besides, it is crucial to define such a term as trauma as there is a tacit assumption in various researches that individuals might remember traumatic experiences in different ways to non-traumatic ones (Memon & Young, 1997). According to Garry, Loftus & Sherman (2006) definition, trauma is any experiences that by their occurrence have threatened the welfare of an individual. Finally, therapy refers to the remedial treatment of a mental or bodily disorder. In this research paper, therapy will refer to the mental treatment.

A crucial question is whether recovered memories need extraordinary mechanisms in order to interpret their existence, as well as quality. The question is principal as it is the belief that these memories are extraordinary, which marks them off daily ones in the perspective of the courts. Data from research on autobiographical memories, including eyewitness memory, might provide useful answers. This is if researchers consider traumatic memories not to be different from other memories (Williams, 1994). On the same note, there have been concerns on the accurateness of recovered memories (Garry, Loftus & Sherman, 2006). Researchers have posited that this kind of memories is prone to create a blend of reality and invention given the suggestion that memories do not undergo repression, as well as storing in a pristine form (Laney & Loftus, 2005).

It is crucial to examine the way courts have treated evidence arising from a claim of recovered memory. In the United States of America, the Statute of Limitations generally demands that when an individual wants to consider legal action for harm suffered (for instance, arising from an accident with a car), he should start proceedings within a period of 1-3 years after the event (Memon & Young, 1997). However, when the individual is under age or cognitively challenged, the start of proceedings might be postponed until he comes of legal age or recovers from the disability (Williams, 1994). When the case involves child sexual abuse claims, the court might consider any amount of obstacles that might have prevented the case from starting within the postulated statutory period, for instance bribes, threats, ignorance about the harm, among other issues (Garry, Loftus & Sherman, 2006).

The “delayed discovery” theory, which originates from medical malpractices, relates to the statute of limitations (Memon & Young, 1997). It holds that there is a need to prove actual knowledge (express awareness) to promote the running of cases after the postulated statutory limitations elapse. This has led to the extension of the period of limitation in civil cases (Laney & Loftus, 2005). In the United Kingdom, the statute applies dubiously in criminal cases. For instance, when suing for nonchalance, the suit should start within three years of the discovery. When it is trespass, it should start within six months. It is crucial to note that statutes sometimes vary and might depend on the interpretation of courts. These legal procedures influence the debate on the use of recovered memories.

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There is a pool of literature concerning the processes that might define recovered memories. A study of sixty experiments of “repression proper” resulted to the output of no regulable lab evidence to support repression (Holmes, 1990). Many researchers often cite the above literature review as an argument against Freud’s (1910) definition of repression according to which repression is an involuntary mechanism. However, there has been no clarification of the so-called null effects. There are glaring questions that need answers before the dismissal of Freud (1910). For instance, does it mean that there lacks testimony for repression? Besides, is it possible to generalize the findings of these studies to genuine trauma? An objective scientist would say no to these questions and proceed to look for evidence from other data sources.

In modern times, research has concentrated on adult patients who experience recovered childhood memories maltreatment (mainly in the context of therapy) in an effort to give retrospective information on recovery and repression. The classical approach for researching real forgetting of trauma is to identify people basing on trauma, and asking them whether these people can recall this trauma.  Such research gives interesting insights into the essence of the hitherto inaccessible memories. However, it fails to specify whether it is a result of primary repression, repression proper or just a case of forgetting because of the absence of retrieval cues or the march of time.

An example is Freyd’s (2007) study in which respondents were to indicate whether there were factors due to which they failed to remember their experiences. This was a tricky question for it could mean two things. First, it could mean whether there were times when the respondent could not remember an event. Second, it could mean whether there were times, the respondent had not given the event a thought. In either way, a positive answer to this question is not clear. The memory of the respondent before starting the therapy is not apparent either. Besides, the reality that the respondents were in groups of survivors by now is problematic. In addition, recent research indicates that some patients in therapy underwent some memory recovery therapy, like hypnosis, of which the risks are apparent (Freyd, 2007).

Williams (1994) monitored women with a history of childhood rape. The researcher asked the respondents in a single interview if they faced abuses, without using any technique to help them in remembering and not alluding to any episode of violence. 38% of the respondents denied facing abuses, a fact that made it unclear if they were referring to a given instance. Williams noted that the respondents denoted that they referred to times during which they forced themselves not to think about the rape. This is not evidence for repression for it is consistent with the behavior of suppression. Thus, it is not possible to ascertain whether people do not disclose memories because of repression, suppression, embarrassment, threats, forgetting, or even because they never happened.

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There is controversy in research about the way people recall emotional significant memory. A summary could be that the effect of emotional arousal on the memory is complex. People might remember primary details of traumatic events, but there is poor retention of peripheral information (Laney & Loftus, 2005). Besides, attending an individual’s emotional reactions might occur instead of identifying the basis of the remembered information (Dalenberg, 2006). Even when memories are clear and vivid, they are prone to distortion in a similar way to the normal memories (Colangelo, 2007). Moreover, over repeated suggestive questioning might result into false memories (McNally, 2005). This means that continued probing whether a respondent faced sexual abuses during childhood might lead to him getting a false memory of previous sexual abuse. There are social psychological pressures that make respondents comply with the suggestions of the questioner (Dalenberg, 2006).

There is no validation of claims of recovered memories. Evidence for repression is hard to establish, and voluntary forgetting might be the cause of the previous lack of early memories. It is not yet possible to differentiate repression from forgetting using science. As a result, legal cases that base on recovered memory claims should face the same fate as those of voluntary negligence. This means that if the now 20-year-old person has recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, the three years statute of limitations should still bar him from filing a suit. However, given the seriousness of sexual crimes, it is likely that false denials might exceed false memories. Researchers need to take into perspective the ethical issues surrounding sexual abuse cases. Sometimes, this might entail the bending of scientific rules. It is evident that science still has a task to come up with conditions by which accurate recollections are possible.

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