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Recovered memory therapy (RMT) is a term coined ca. 1992-1993 by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) to describe to describe methods of psychotherapy that they argued were of questionable scientific legitimacy, and which were additionally likely to create "false memories" of childhood sexual abuse.[1][2][3]

The term "recovered memory therapy" is little-used by mainstream mental health experts, does not describe a unified formal psychotheraputic modality, and is not listed in DSM-IV.[4]

History of use

Since the late 1800s, mainstream medical experts have noted that memory loss is sometimes associated with trauma. However, the etiology, terminology and other particulars of such memory loss -- including whether or not such memories can in fact be forgotten and then recovered with any accuracy -- have been debated. Some experts argue that the entire concept of forgotten or repressed traumatic memory is dubious[5] [6] Nonetheless, a substantial percentage of mainstream mental health experts agree that, in at least some cases, traumatic memories can be forgotten or escape recall from episodic memory, yet later be recalled with reasonable accuracy.[7] [8] [9] The best-seller The Courage to Heal, first published in 1988, promotes memory recovery as a form of healing from sexual trauma.[10]

The term "recovered memory therapy" was coined ca. 1992-1993 by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF), an group that advocates on behalf of those who claim they have falsely been accused of sexual abuse. The FSMF argued that RMT might implant "false memories," by means of questionable therapies such as hypnosis, age regression, drug-assisted interviewing (using substances such as sodium amytal), and guided visualization.[11] While these methods are sometimes practiced by individual therapists, they were not necessarily recognized by the mainstream psychiatric or psychological community.[12] As such, RMT is a loose umbrella term when compared to accepted psychotherapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which are tested, have strict guidelines, and are accepted by large percentages of the mainstream mental health community.

RMT controveries

Legal cases

In the mid-1990s, Minnesota psychiatrist Diane Bay Humenansky was accused of using hypnosis and other suggestive techniques associated with RMT. Several of her patients accused family memners of abuse that was later found to be false.[13][14][15]

In the UK, a woman who said she had falsely accused her father of rape successfully sued the hospital and psychologist who had treated her with what she described as a form of RMT, and was awarded a large settlement.[16]

In one case featured on a U.S. Frontline episode, a girl who had had perfect attendance and grades as a teenager claimed, after visiting a therapist, that her family had performed ritualized Satanic sexual abuse on her all through her childhood. After visiting the therapist, this same girl claimed to have developed 26 distinct personalities she said resulted from the abuse. [17] However, his Frontline episode was criticized on both scientific grounds (for misrepresenting scientific data and consensus), and on grounds of journalistic integrity.[18]

Dissociative Identity Disorder

RMT in the 1990s coincided with a sharp rise in the occurrence of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID; formerly Multiple Personality Disorder.) Skeptics of recovered memory therapy point out this sharp rise, in what had been considered an extremely rare disorder before 1980, as part of a body of evidence suggesting that the disorder, may be caused by false memories implanted by recovered memory therapy. Some critics have gone so far as to call DID a "passing psychological fad".[19]

Similarly, Joan Acocella writes:[20]

"If only for financial reasons, one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of psychotherapy seems to be coming to an end. 'In all but a few years,' writes Paul Mchugh, the director of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, 'we will all look back' on the multiple personality disorder movement 'and be dumbfounded by the gullibility of the public in the late twentieth century and by the power of psychiatric assertions to dissolve common sense.'"

Scientific legitimacy

Several regulatory or professional organizations have warned mental health professionals against use of questionable RMT methods, and advising that recovered memories of abuse may or may not be genuine, may or may not be verifiable, and must be judged on a case-by-case basis.[21] [8] [22] [23]

A 1999 study by Andrews et al.,[24] examined 690 patients in the UK who recovered memories of traumatic experience. 65% of patients recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, while 35% recalled other trauma. Therapists reported that the overwhelming majority of recovered sexual abuse memories were plausible, and that 41% of the abuse cases were confirmed or verified. 78% of patients recovered abuse memories before entering therapy.

Some critics have argued that the FMRF coined RMT less from legitimate scientific research, and more to promote an ideological standpoint:

  • The FMSF described "false memory syndrome" and "recovered memory therapy" as an epidemic or crisis for medicine and law. Critics[25][26] responded by noting that "false memory syndrome" was not recognized by the mainstream medical community; was not clearly-defined by the FMSF; did not meet the criteria for a syndrome; was untested; was based on flawed and discredited ideas; and additionally that the FMSF exaggerated the impact of confabulation and other memory errors while minimizing or ignoring contradictory evidence that indicated memory loss can happen after traumatic events.
  • Charles Whitfield describes RMT as a reactionary construct used by activists affiliated with the False Memory Syndrome Foundation as a way to contest the efficacy of the trauma model of psychopathology,[27], and has described the "false memory defense" in criminal trials as one of "disinformation".[28]
  • An Australian government inquiry of RMT found little support for or use of RMT from health professionals; rather concluding the term was created by for political use.[29]
  • In October, 2007, Scientific American published an article critical of RMT,[30] which was criticized by the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation as erroneous for presenting the idea that there was a coherent method or training for something called 'recovered memory therapy,' and additionally describing RMT as a "straw-man argument."[31]

Notes and references

  1. Whitfield, CL; Silberg JL; Fink PJ (2001). Misinformation Concerning Child Sexual Abuse and Adult Survivors, Haworth Press.; page 56.
  2. includeonly>Salter, Stephanie. "Feminist Treason and Intellectual Fascism" (reprint), San Francisco Examiner, 1993-04-07. Retrieved on 2007-12-15.
  3. Underwager, Ralph; Hollida Wakefield (October 1994). Return of the Furies: An Investigation into Recovered Memory Therapy, Open Court Pub Co.
  4. Whitfield, Charles L.; Joyanna L. Silberg, Paul Jay Fink (2001). Misinformation Concerning Child Sexual Abuse and Adult Survivors, 56, Haworth Press.
  5. Critics of recovered memory therapy, like Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters (Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, And Sexual Hysteria), view the practice of "recovering" memories as fraudulent and dangerous. They base this assertion on several claims:
    • Traumatic experiences which obviously have happened, such as war time experiences, are not "repressed"—they are either forgotten or remembered clearly in spite of attempts to suppress them.
    • The "memories" recovered in RMT are highly detailed. According to RMT literature, the human brain stores very vivid memories which can be recalled in detail, like a video tape. This belief contradicts virtually all research on the way memories work.
    • The patient is given very extensive lists of "symptoms" including sleeplessness, headaches, the feeling of being different from others etc. If several of these symptoms are found, the therapist suggests to the patient that they were probably sexually abused. If the patient rejects this suggestion, they are "in denial" and require more extensive therapy. This is a form of catch-22.
    • During the questioning, patients are openly encouraged to ignore their own feelings and memories and to assume that the abuse has happened. They then explore together with this therapist, over a prolonged period of many months or even years, how the abuse happened. The possibility that the abuse has not happened at all is usually not considered.
  6. "Remembering Trauma" by Prof. Richard McNally, Harvard University Press (2003). Prof. McNally summaries the relevant scientific research and concludes that the notion of repressed memory is nothing more than psychiatric "folklore".
  7. Jim Hopper of Harvard University writes, "A substantial body of empirical evidence of amnesia and delayed recall for abuse has existed for years."
  8. 8.0 8.1 (2004-01-27) Disputed memories, 2004/02 (in English), The Hague: Health Council of the Netherlands. URL accessed 2008-05-16.
  9. The Recovered Memory Project at Brown University has an archive of 101 cases where forgotten memories of sexual abuse were remembered years later, and which were corroborated with verifiable evidence such as court or medical records, or clinical case studies, or confirmed confessions by perpetrators.
  10. "Bass and Davis examine very traumatic experiences and offer hope to survivors of these experiences."
  11. Greene, Edith; Wrightsman, Lawrence S.; Nietzel, Michael T.; Fortune, William H. (2002). Psychology and the legal system, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
  12. Wood, Ellen Meiksins; Wood, Samuel H. (1999). The World of Psychology, Boston, Mass: Allyn & Bacon.
  13. Gustafson, Paul. Jury awards patient $2.6 million: Verdict finds therapist Humenansky liable in repressed memory trial. Minneapolis St. Paul Tribune, August 1, 1995.
  14. includeonly>Pam Belluck. "Memory Therapy Leads to a Lawsuit and Big Settlement", The New York Times, November 6, 1997.
  15. Guthrey, M. and Kaplan, T., 2nd Patient Wins Against Psychiatrist: Accusation of planting memories brings multi-million dollar verdict. St. Paul Pioneer Press, Jan. 25, 1996, 4B.
  16. £20,000 payout for woman who falsely accused her father of rape after 'recovered memory' therapy Daily Mail UK 2007
  17. “Divided Memories, Part 1” (Videotape, 120 min.) Frontline. Public Broadcasting Service, aired 4 April 1995. Produced by Ofra Bikel.
  18. "A watershed media event in the recovered-memory debate, 'Divided Memories' purported to be a balanced examination of the issue and, to uninformed viewers, seemed to summarize where the matter stands today. In truth, it was a four-hour polemic [...] that gave short shrift to confirmed cases of recovered memory. The program spent most of its time skewering fringe therapists." Stanton, Mike. ""U Turn on Memory Lane", Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 1997
  20. Acocella, Joan. Creating Hysteria - Women and Multiple Personality Disorder
  21. Brandon, S., Boakes, J.; Glaser, D.; Green, R.; MacKeith, J.; Whewell, P. (1997). Reported recovered memories of child sexual abuse: Recommendations for good practice and implications for training, continuing professional development and research. Psychiatric Bulletin 21: 663–665.
  22. Australian Hypnotherapists Association Code of Ethics: Guidelines for AHA Members working with clients in contexts in which issues related to false memories of childhood sexual abuse may arise. (pdf) Australian Hypnotherapists Association. URL accessed on 2008-05-16.
  23. Ogloff, JRP (1996). GUIDELINES FOR PSYCHOLOGISTS ADDRESSING RECOVERED MEMORIES (pdf), Canadian Psychological Association. URL accessed 2008-05-16.
  24. Andrews, B., Brewin, C., Ochera, J., Morton, J., Bekerian, D., Davies, G., and Mollon, P. (1999). "Characteristics, context and consequences of memory recovery among adults in therapy." British Journal of Psychiatry 175, pp. 141-146.
  25. Dallam, S. J. (2002). "Crisis or Creation: A systematic examination of false memory claims." Journal of Child Sexual Abuse v 9 (3/4), pp. 9-36.
  26. Murphy, Wendy J. "Debunking 'false memory' myths in sexual abuse cases:" "...While nobody would argue that memory is perfect, imperfection is hardly enough to merit recognition of a medical syndrome. Indeed, the DSM-IV nowhere recognizes this condition, and no studies or research exists to suggest that anyone suffers from it."
  27. Whitfield M.D., Charles L. (1995). Memory and Abuse - Remembering and Healing the Effects of Trauma, Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.
  28. Whitfield CL (2001). "The false memory defense: using disinformation in and out of court." Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 9(3-4):53-78
  29. Australian Health Services Commissioner (2005). Inquiry into the practice of recovered memory therapy. (pdf) Office of the Health Services Commissioner. URL accessed on 2008-01-31.
  30. Lambert, K, Lilienfeld SO Brain Stains. Scientific American. URL accessed on 2008-01-25.
  31. Executive Council, International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (2007-11-30) (pdf), Letter to Scientific American, Inc. Editor and Chief,, retrieved on 2008-01-08 

See also


Acocella, Joan. Creating Hysteria - Women and Multiple Personality Disorder. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, ©1999.

Watters, Richard and Ofshe, Ethan. "Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, And Sexual Hysteria". University of California Press; Reprint edition, 1996.

Loftus, Elizabeth and Ketcham, Katherine. "The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse". St. Martin's Griffin, 1st St. Martin's Griffin ed edition, 1996.

Types of memory
Articulatory suppression‎ | Auditory memory | Autobiographical memory | Collective memory | Early memories | Echoic Memory | Eidetic memory | Episodic memory | Episodic-like memory  | Explicit memory  |Exosomatic memory | False memory |Flashbulb memory | Iconic memory | Implicit memory | Institutional memory | Long term memory | Music-related memory | Procedural memory | Prospective memory | Repressed memory | Retrospective memory | Semantic memory | Sensory memory | Short term memory | Spatial memory | State-dependent memory | Tonal memory | Transactive memory | Transsaccadic memory | Verbal memory  | Visual memory  | Visuospatial memory  | Working memory  |
Aspects of memory
Childhood amnesia | Cryptomnesia |Cued recall | Eye-witness testimony | Memory and emotion | Forgetting |Forgetting curve | Free recall | Levels-of-processing effect | Memory consolidation |Memory decay | Memory distrust syndrome |Memory inhibition | Memory and smell | Memory for the future | Memory loss | Memory optimization | Memory trace | Mnemonic | Memory biases  | Modality effect | Tip of the tongue | Lethologica | Memory loss |Priming | Primacy effect | Reconstruction | Proactive interference | Prompting | Recency effect | Recall (learning) | Recognition (learning) | Reminiscence | Retention | Retroactive interference | Serial position effect | Serial recall | Source amnesia |
Memory theory
Atkinson-Shiffrin | Baddeley | CLARION | Decay theory | Dual-coding theory | Interference theory |Memory consolidation | Memory encoding | Memory-prediction framework | Forgetting | Recall | Recognition |
Method of loci | Mnemonic room system | Mnemonic dominic system | Mnemonic learning | Mnemonic link system |Mnemonic major system | Mnemonic peg system | [[]] |[[]] |
Neuroanatomy of memory
Amygdala | Hippocampus | prefrontal cortex  | Neurobiology of working memory | Neurophysiology of memory | Rhinal cortex | Synapses |[[]] |
Neurochemistry of memory
Glutamatergic system  | of short term memory | [[]] |[[]] | [[]] | [[]] | [[]] | [[]] |[[]] |
Developmental aspects of memory
Prenatal memory | |Childhood memory | Memory and aging | [[]] | [[]] |
Memory in clinical settings
Alcohol amnestic disorder | Amnesia | Dissociative fugue | False memory syndrome | False memory | Hyperthymesia | Memory and aging | Memory disorders | Memory distrust syndrome  Repressed memory  Traumatic memory |
Retention measures
Benton | CAMPROMPT | Implicit memory testing | Indirect tests of memory | MAS | Memory tests for children | MERMER | Rey-15 | Rivermead | TOMM | Wechsler | WMT | WRAML2 |
Treating memory problems
CBT | EMDR | Psychotherapy | Recovered memory therapy |Reminiscence therapy | Memory clinic | Memory training | Rewind technique |
Prominant workers in memory|-
Baddeley | Broadbent |Ebbinghaus  | Kandel |McGaugh | Schacter  | Treisman | Tulving  |
Philosophy and historical views of memory
Aristotle | [[]] |[[]] |[[]] |[[]] | [[]] | [[]] | [[]] |
Journals | Learning, Memory, and Cognition |Journal of Memory and Language |Memory |Memory and Cognition | [[]] | [[]] | [[]] |

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