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RECOVERED MEMORY THERAPY

HOW DOES HUMAN MEMORY WORK?

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Various belief systems:

There have been many belief systems suggested, to account for the operation of human memory:

bulletMind is like a video tape: The mind records in very complete detail every event during a person's lifetime, much like a video tape. Retrieving a memory is similar to searching for a scene in a video tape: one selects the correct cartridge, fast-forwards to the episode of interest, and observes the scene. It does not matter how a memory from the past is accessed, whether through direct memory, or with the aid of hypnosis, "truth serum", guided imagery, etc. By whatever method it is accessed, it is exact and reliable.

One example of this belief system occurred during the police interrogation of Paul R. Ingram of Olympia WA. He was charged with multiple cases of Satanic Ritual Abuse. As he was describing one of the abuse scenes, an interrogator asked him what time the rape took place. In his mind, he "zeroed in" on one of the perpetrator's arms and read the time off of his watch dial. Both Ingram and his interrogator appear to have believed in the video camera theory of memory. 

This belief system reinforced the recovered memory therapy (RMT) movement, which regards many adult emotional problems as being caused by repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. Many RMT therapists believe that certain childhood memories are stored precisely and in complete detail in an area of the brain that is normally inaccessible; the memories are repressed. This is sometimes believed to be limited to only sexual abuse memories. However, hypnosis, guided imagery and similar therapies are believed to be able to unlock these memories and recall them in pristine detail as they actually happened.
bulletMind is reconstructive: Events are imperfectly remembered. Many events are not remembered at all. Some events are remembered initially but later gradually forgotten. A trigger (e.g. an article in a newspaper, a photograph of a friend etc) might bring back a recently forgotten memory. However, most events eventually become permanently lost and can never be retrieved. 

It is impossible for the brain to store complete details of every event. It simply does not have the storage capacity to hold that amount of data. Rather, only a minimal amount of information is actually stored in the brain. When we recall a memory, our mind will automatically "flesh out" the recollection by inventing details of the event, based on previous similar experiences. This process is largely unconscious; we are not generally aware of it happening. 

One interesting phenomenon can occur when the memory is being recalled as a result of questions by a therapist or interrogator. Their suggestive questions can distort this "fleshing out" process. The mind can add new components to the memory that are unrelated to the original event. Even more interestingly, these distortions will later re-enter the client's memory, and will probably emerge during subsequent recalls. 
bulletMind is distributed through the body: The human mind is not all confined to the brain. It is rather distributed around the body. For example, the foot has an elementary brain that will automatically operate the accelerator of a car in order to keep the car moving at a constant speed without any conscious involvement of the brain. A woman who has experienced severe trauma will store memories of that event in those cells in her body which were involved in the attack. When she suffers a flashback, these "body memories" reconstruct the violence as if it is currently happening to her. This belief system is promoted by some feminists.
bulletMind is very selective in what it remembers: Jennifer Freyd, a professor at the University of Oregon has formed an interesting theory of the psychological processes involved in human memory. She believes that a repression/dissociation mechanism exists whereby memories of some specific types of abuse are repressed and can only be recovered later through recovered memory therapy. She believes that seriously distressing events will often be remembered continuously into adulthood. So will instances of sexual molestation and abuse. But memories of sexual abuse by parents or other caregivers are often repressed. She believes that the factor that causes the mind to treat these two types of sexual abuse differently is a sense of betrayal in the mind of the child. 2 The rationale is that a child abused by a parent is continually in the presence of the abuser. Each time that they see the abuser, they try to forget the abuse. Eventually, the memory is repressed, and can only be recovered through hypnosis and other similar techniques. Her theories have gained widespread support among adults who believe that they have recovered long-repressed memories of sexual abuse by their parents. They do not seem to have been widely accepted by the therapeutic community and other memory researchers.

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History of beliefs about the mind:

In the early years of the 20th century, Sir Frederick Bartlett, a British psychologist from Cambridge, concluded that human memory was far more reconstructive than was previously thought. He became convinced that memory is not an accurate record of the past. Rather, the mind reconstructs a memory based on minimal stored information. It adds additional material - something like a paint-by-numbers canvas. The latter was "shown to be affected by cognitive biases, short-cuts in reasoning strategies, social and contextual processes, and even personality factors." 1 

The pendulum swung towards the video camera theory by the middle of the 20th century. Dr. Wilder Penfield, a Canadian neurosurgeon from Montreal, performed a series of experiments in which vivid memories were recalled by injecting a small electrical current into the temporal lobes of the patient's brain. It appeared as if every event that a person experienced during their lifetime was recorded in minute detail in the brain and thus might be recalled at any time. This theory was later criticized on logical grounds. The amount of data storage for even one year of memories would vastly exceed any possible ability of the brain to hold.

Recent work by Elizabeth Loftus, an American psychologist from the University of Washington, and others, has largely confirmed the conclusions of Bartlett, and shown that the video tape theory is without validity.

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Other recent findings about memory:

"Hypnosis researchers such as Ernest Hilgard, Martin Orne, Nicholas Spanos, and Robert Baker have shown numerous times how easy it is to produce pseudomemories in experimental subjects who will state with great conviction that the suggested events actually occurred." 3

Researchers at Northwestern University found that people confuse object that they have actually seen and objects about which they have only imagined. They asked people to look at real objects and then to vividly visualize other objects. Over time, they got confused over which was which. The authors of the study wrote: "We think parts of the brain used to actually perceive an object and to visually imagine an object overlap. A vividly imagined event can leave a memory trace in the brain that is very similar to that of an experienced event." 4

A typical adult is unable to remember events which occurred prior to 42 months of age. Memories from events that happened during infancy (0 to 24 months) are unknown.

There appears to be no evidence for the existence of distributed memory throughout the body. No structures external to the brain have every been found that could remember and recall events.

The study of the human mind is currently in its infancy. It is an exciting area of study that will lead to greater understanding in the future.

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Related essay and menu:

bulletHow children disclose ritual abuse memories
bulletRecovered memory therapy - menu

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References used:

  1. Barry L. Beyerstein & James R.P. Ogloff, "Hidden memories: fact or fantasy?" Healthcare Reality Check, at: http://www.hcrc.org/contrib/beyerst/hidmem.html
  2. Jennifer J. Freyd, "Betrayal trauma: The logic of forgetting childhood abuse," Harvard University Press, (1998). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store 
  3. "Genfundne minder: Hiddden Menories: Fact or Fantasy?," Skeptica.dk, at www.skeptica.dk/ No longer online.
  4. Brian Gonsalves et al.: "Neural Evidence That Vivid Imagining Can Lead to False Remembering," Psychological Science, Volume 15, Issue 10, (2004-OCT), Page 655.

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Copyright 2000 to 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-FEB-12
Latest update: 2004-OCT-23
Author: B.A. Robinson

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