On 5 October 2017, I, along with four other memory researchers, read out an essay on memory in front of an audience at the Wellcome Collection Reading Room in London. The following week, the essays were broadcast on Radio 3. Mine went out on 10 October 2017 and can be listened to here. Part 1 of the full text is reproduced below and Part 2 will be reproduced in my next column.
What is your very earliest memory? As a psychologist with a particular interest in memory, this is a question that I have often pondered for myself – and I’m still not sure that I can answer it. When I try to mentally time-travel back to my childhood, several images appear in my mind’s eye. I can picture a reading book we used in school when I was learning to read, featuring Old Lob the farmer and I can even remember the pictures of some of the animals on his farm – Dobbin the horse, Mr Dan the dog, and especially Percy the bad chick. I am sure other memories predate that one though – mental images of things like the gas fire we used to have in my bedroom, Peter my much-loved one-eyed toy Panda, and the stairs in my Grandma’s house. But they are just images and they seem to be a pretty random selection. Unlike my more recent memories, there is no narrative structure, no sense that first this happened and then that happened. As appears to be typical for everyone, these fleeting images are hard to date, so I suspect I’ll never be able to confidently choose just one as my first real memory.
Some people, however, claim to be able to clearly remember events from the first year or two of life, including remembering actually being born. Indeed, some go even further and claim that they can remember life in the womb. We can be fairly sure that such apparent memories are almost certainly false memories, no matter how real they may feel. All of the evidence strongly supports the idea that it is simply not possible to encode accurate and detailed autobiographical memories in the first year or two of life, probably because the brain is simply not mature enough to do so. Also, at that age we do not have the language skills that are thought to be necessary to produce the narrative structure that characterises later memories.
One very famous account of a false memory from early life is provided by none other than the famous Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget. “I was sitting in my pram,” he recalled, “which my nurse was pushing in the Champs Elysées, when a man tried to kidnap me. I was held in by the strap fastened around me while my nurse bravely tried to stand between me and the thief. She received various scratches, and I can still see vaguely those on her face. Then a crowd gathered, a policeman with a short cloak and a white baton came up, and the man took to his heels. I can still see the whole scene, and can even place it near the tube station.”
The only problem with this exciting memory, as Piaget himself later realised, is that none of this ever happened. At the time, the family had been so grateful to the nurse for her courageous actions, they had even given her an expensive watch as a reward. The tale was often recounted at family gatherings. Years later, tormented by guilt, the nurse had written to the family confessing that she had made the whole thing up.
False Memories Feel Real
Such false memories feel subjectively just the same as memories for events that really did take place. It is just that the events in question either never took place at all or else were so different to the way you remember them as to bear little resemblance to what really happended.
Let me be clear. I am not saying that all memories of childhood are false memories. The problem is that, in the absence of independent evidence, it is simply impossible to say which memories are more or less accurate reflections of events which really did occur, which are distorted versions of what really happened, and which, like Piaget’s, are entirely false. Contrary to what many people believe, memory does not accurately record every detail of every experience you’ve ever had. Instead, remembering is a reconstructive process.
Think of a holiday that you have been on. Think of some specific event that happened on that holiday. Try to remember a scene from that event as clearly as you can and picture it in your mind’s eye. Now, ask yourself this question: Can you see yourself in your mental image? Many people, though not all, report that it seems to them as if they are watching the scene from the vantage point of an outside observer, clearly demonstrating that this memory is not simply a mental replay of what they experienced through their own eyes at the time.
Furthermore, memories are always fragmentary and incomplete. We tend to remember the general gist of what happened but forget many specific details. We often unconsciously and automatically fill in any gaps in memory with what we think we must have seen, rather than what we actually did see. A nice illustration of this is to ask people how the four is represented on most clocks and watches with Roman numerals on them. The vast majority of people will reply “IV”. The correct answer is “IIII”. In all other contexts, the number four really is represented as “IV” – but not on most clocks and watches.
For most of us, most of the time, it does not matter too much if our childhood memories are more or less accurate or not. If we have what appear to be fairly clear memories of childhood episodes, that will be enough to satisfy us that those pictures in our minds are reflections of things that really did happen to us – especially if no one ever challenges their veracity.
A Modern Witch Hunt
Sometimes, however, false memories of childhood can have extremely serious and damaging consequences. Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, particularly in the USA but in many countries around the world including the UK, vulnerable people entered into therapy in the hope that this would help them to deal with a wide range of troubling but fairly common psychological problems – such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders or problems with relationships. When they entered therapy, they had no memories of ever being the victim of childhood sexual abuse. By the time their treatment had ended, they were convinced that they had been so abused – typically by their own parents. What is more, they had detailed and horrific memories of their abuse. In some cases, the alleged abuse was particularly extreme. It was claimed by some, for example, that they had been victims of ritualised Satanic abuse. These rituals, often described in graphic detail, were said to involve the sacrifice of animals and babies, cannibalism, rape, and every sexual perversion imaginable. The consequences were that families were torn apart, alleged victims were tormented by nightmarish memories that had replaced those of relatively normal childhoods, and alleged abusers were arrested and sometimes sent to prison.
The central question was, of course, were these apparent memories recovered during therapy accurate reflections of real events – or were they completely false memories of events that had never happened at all? Psychologists were – and to some extent still are – divided in their opinions on this question. Those clinical psychologists who favoured a psychoanalytic approach to the question found it easy to believe that these recovered memories were probably memories for real events. They accepted the psychoanalytic notion of repression – the idea that when someone suffers a trauma, an automatic psychological defence mechanism kicks in that pushes the memory for that trauma deep into the unconscious mind where it can no longer be accessed by the conscious mind. Psychoanalysts believe that such repressed memories can still have a damaging effect, however, leading to the types of psychological problems in later life that might lead to someone seeking the assistance of a therapist.
In sharp contrast, experimental psychologists typically doubt the validity of the very concept of repression. They point out that traumatic experiences are far more likely to be remembered than forgotten. After all, no one ever forgot being held in a concentration camp. If repression is a myth, albeit a widely believed myth much loved by writers of fiction, it follows that most, possibly all, memories “recovered” during psychotherapy are in fact false memories.
Whereas there is no compelling evidence in support of the psychoanalytic notion of repression, there is a vast amount of evidence to support the notion of false memories. Statements supporting the dangers of false memories arising during therapy can be found in official pronouncements by numerous national professional psychological and psychiatric associations around the world.
Professor Chris French, a former Editor in Chief of The Skeptic, is Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London (www.goldsmiths.ac.uk/apru). His previous books include Why Statues Weep: The Best of The Skeptic (with Wendy Grossman) and Anomalistic Psychology (with Nicola Holt, Christine Simmonds-Moore and David Luke). His most recent book (with Anna Stone) is Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience. He also writes for the Guardian. Follow him on Twitter: @chriscfrench