Calling Memory Into Question:
A look at False Memory Syndrome
Memory is the mental faculty of retaining and recalling past experiences. A repressed memory is one that is retained in the subconscious mind, where one is not aware of it but where it can still affect both conscious thoughts and behavior. When memory is distorted or confabulated, the result can be what has been called the False Memory Syndrome: a condition in which a person's identity and interpersonal relationships are entered around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes (note that the syndrome is not characterized by false memories as such). We all have memories that are inaccurate. Rather, the syndrome may be diagnosed when the memory is so deeply ingrained that it orients the individual's entire personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts of other adaptive behaviors. The analogy to personality disorder is intentional. False memory syndrome is especially destructive because the person assiduously avoids confrontation with any evidence that might challenge the memory. Thus it takes on a life of its own, encapsulated and resistant to correction. The person may become so focused on the memory that he or she may be effectively distracted from coping with real problems in his or her life (Loftus 1980, 1997). There are many models which try to explain how memory works. Nevertheless, we do not know exactly how memory works. One of the most questionable models of memory is the one which assumes that every experience a person has had is 'recorded' in memory and that some of these memories are of traumatic events too terrible to want to remember. These terrible memories are locked away in the subconscious mind, i.e. repressed, only to be remembered in adulthood when some triggering event opens the door to the unconscious. Both before and after the repressed memory is remembered, it causes physical and mental disorders in a person. Some people have made an effort to explain their pain, even cancer, as coming from repressed memories of incest in the body. Scientists have studied related phenomenon such as people whose hands bleed in certain religious settings. Presumably such people, called stigmatics, "are not revealing unconscious memories of being crucified as young children, but rather are demonstrating a fascinating psychogenic anomaly that springs from their conscious fixation on the suffering of Christ. Similarly, it is possible that conscious fixation on the idea that one was sexually abused might increase the frequency of some physical symptoms, regardless of whether or not the abuse really occurred."(Lindsay & Read, 1994) This view of memory has two elements: (1) the accuracy element and (2) the causal element. The reason this model is questionable is not because people don't have unpleasant or painful experiences they would rather forget, nor is it claiming that children often experience both wonderful and brutal things for which they have no conceptual or linguistic framework and hence are incapable of understanding them, much less relating it to others. It is questionable because this model maintains that because (a) one is having problems of functioning as a healthy human being and (b) one remembers being abused as a child that therefore (A) one was abused as a child and (B) the childhood abuse is the cause of one's adulthood problems. There is no evidence that supports the claim that we remember everything that we experience. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to support the claim that it is impossible for us to even attend to all the perceptual elements of any given experience, much less to recall them all. There is no evidence to support the claim that all memories of experiences happened as they remembered to have happened or that they have even happened at all. And there is no evidence to support the claim that subjective certainty about...
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