False Memory Syndrome (FMS) refers to the alleged state of mind where a person has been affected by false memories that have been recovered from the past. These are past recollections that the person strongly believes happened, yet they are incorrect.

Typical problems that an individual with FMS might have includes relationship problems, and potentially even identity issues. But FMS can also have disastrous consequences for other people, with several high-profile controversies emanating from FMS.

Many oppose the existence of FMS, instead suggesting that recovered memory is accurate, and attempts to dismiss them acts as victim-blaming.

There is significant debate in psychology over whether or not False Memory Syndrome exists

Background

FMS forms part of the wider recovered memory debate – which is a highly contentious topic. FMS is not considered a psychiatric disorder in itself. Many dispute its existence entirely.

It is a highly controversial subject, as personified by the fact that the name attributed to this state of mind – False memory syndrome – was developed by the parents of a child who allegedly uncovered memories of child abuse at the hands of her father, who protested innocence. 

As mentioned, FMS isn’t considered to be a psychiatric disorder in itself. It may be more considered to be associated as a symptom of some form of Dissociative Disorder, or a precursor to Delusional Disorder.

Recovered memory often appears during therapy. It can even be unwittingly caused by a therapist. Scientists and researchers have been split on the notion that FMS is a real state of mind, with some of the possible external influences that could cause FMS having been speculated on.

A person with FMS will go through their day-to-day life with the strong belief of a past traumatic memory. As any person with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder would be able to attest to, someone who lives with a trauma will have their life affected significantly.

The Role of Therapy

The onset of FMS will often come as an indirect consequence of a type of talking therapy, which a person engages in.

“Recovered memory therapy” is a term used to describe an array of possible techniques or methods that can supposedly be used to uncover traumatic memories. It does appear rational that these various techniques may inadvertently cause a false memory.

A person may be seeking help for a mental health condition like Depression. The patient may have been struggling with low mood for many months, yet are unsure as to why.

A therapist may believe that a repressed memory is affecting the patient. A repressed memory refers to a situation where a traumatic event or feeling is unconsciously pushed to the back of someone’s mind; it is a defence mechanism used by the mind to protect itself from harm. But the traumatic memory may continue to influence a person’s behaviour.

In the instance when a therapist believes there may be unconscious feelings or memories that are causing a person’s difficulties, they may employ a technique or method to attempt to uncover these memories.

It does appear that certain therapies can uncover past memories; but it also seems that some of these memories may be false, with the therapist accidentally inducing the memory. But this, again is cause of speculation.

Typical therapies that are commonly used for traumatic memories include Psychoanalytical Psychotherapy, Hypnotherapy (hypnotising), Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) or Repetitive Eye Movement Stimulation (REMS) among others.

These therapies when used properly can be very effective, but have attracted their own share of controversy. You can read about more types of therapy at this link.

Various techniques within therapy do seem to be capable of recovering hidden memories, but the authenticity of these memories causes the controversy associated with this subject.

In terms of the science behind recovered memories, the process of memory consolidation is important. Memory consolidation refers to how a memory becomes ingrained permanently in a person’s mind, once it has been acquired. Once a memory is stored in the hippocampus (an area of the brain that is associated with memories), the memory may last forever.

The controversy of False Memory Syndrome

As mentioned earlier, significant controversy surrounds FMS, and the wider topic of recovered memories. It is a topic which has been discussed for several decades.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, attempts to uncover past traumas were routinely made. These efforts were done in good faith, and appear to have helped many people.

But the validity of uncovered memories have always been questioned. There are arguments supporting both sides.

Arguments suggesting recovered memories cannot be trusted:

Humans do appear to be vulnerable to false memories being created. As a human’s memory is very suggestible, certain techniques seem to be capable of manipulating it.

Hypnosis is an example of a well-known technique associated with false memories, while truth serums have been used in warfare in the past as a way of finding out the truth from an opposition soldier.

When a human develops a memory, they understandably have no reason to doubt its existence. A lot of research has gone into techniques that could feasibly lead to mind control.

One widescale study that was carried out by esteemed psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus, her student Jim Coan and Jacqueline E. Pickrell, found that around 25% of 24 people undertaking said study developed a ‘memory’ for an event that was fictional [1].

Known as the ‘lost in the mall’ study, techniques used by the authors left some subjects with a false memory – showing the supposed ease of which one can achieve this.

It should be noted that the methodology employed in this study has been criticised by many. A 2019 critique suggested the methodology was flawed in many ways, and that crucial information like the experience of those conducting the test, the specific recalled events of candidates and a lack of detail on how people were recruited were all omitted from the published results [2].

Because of the nature of traumatic events from the past – typically abusive in their nature, false memories can cause problems for people who were innocent. There have been many cases where people were imprisoned due to false or fabricated memories. The authors of a 1996 article into uncovered memories suggested that proponents of repressed memories like Sigmund Freud had “seriously underestimated the impact of suggestion on memory and belief” [3].

Several high-profile cases exist, including the case of Peter Freyd, which is mentioned in further detail later, is arguably the best-known case in the field of repressed or false memories.

Cases involving Gary Ramona and the infamous McMartin preschool abuse trial are also well-known, though questions continue to be asked regarding whether or not justice was served.

Another case involved Patricia Burgus – a woman who became convinced that she had been sexually abused, and abused others while partaking in a satanic cult – all due to memories supposedly uncovered in therapy. She was eventually awarded $10.6million in a landmark pay-out.

Several other multimillion settlements have been reached. In the United Kingdom, a woman named Katrina Fairlie won a substantial pay-out after having accused her father of rape falsely, due to techniques used within therapy.

Other cases exist where medications like barbiturates have allegedly caused false memories – leading to further litigation. In a large article that reviewed different forms of therapies, researchers concluded that any therapy involving recovered memories probably “produce harm” in those that received it [4].

Arguments suggesting recovered memories can be trusted:

Yet on the other side, there is also positive evidence towards recovered memories. It is generally believed that 10% of victims of abuse forget the abuse [5]. It is feasible that traumatic memories can be recovered in time. Further research had put the figure as high as 25%, of which just 2% recovered these memories through therapy [6].

Michael Salter, a respected academic who has been a fierce defender of the authenticity of false memories, has contributed a lot to the argument. Salter has suggested that around one third of sexual abuse victims will experience either partial or full amnesia after their abuse [7].

Salter has conducted numerous studies into the subject which led to his assertion. He stated that as many alleged abusers are camouflaged through legitimate roles (e.g. parents, teachers, relatives), meaning that they are in a position to get away with abuse.

Those that suggest false memories can be induced by a therapist point to the high retraction rate, where a person later retracts their allegations. Proponents of the factual nature of recovered memories suggest that these ‘victims’ may be pressured to do so, rather than doing so out of their personal beliefs.

Another point that is worth mentioning is that many suggest memory is something that can come in snippets – not always at once. Over time, these snippets may be pieced together by someone, in the way that a jigsaw is. It is possible that this final piece of the jigsaw is found during therapy, and that timings are merely coincidental, or exactly due to therapy being able to provide a missing link.

Due to the nature of the controversy surrounding FMS, it may feasibly have led to acquittals of individuals who had committed abuse that was correctly recovered from the victim’s memory.

Therefore, the controversy isn’t limited to just the innocent being labelled as guilty, the guilty may sometimes escape punishment. This can be seen as an enormous miscarriage of justice. 

Some professionals have gone as far as to state that in a court setting, that repressed or uncovered memories should be held in the same esteem as regular memories [8].

Questions will always be posed as to whether or not a person can actually recover memories of long-forgotten childhood/teenage abuse.

Those who are proponents of recovered memories being truthful suggest rejecting such memories contribute to a culture of victim-blaming. It is a topic that has caused significant debate throughout psychiatry.

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation and Peter Freyd

The name of the overall state of mind – False Memory Syndrome – is attributed to Peter and Pamela Freyd, who coined the term ‘False Memory Syndrome’ after their adult daughter Jennifer accused Peter of sexual abuse in her teenage years.

Jennifer had been in treatment for anxiety, and during this treatment, she allegedly recovered memories which resulted in allegations of sexual abuse being levelled at her father.

Peter Freyd vehemently denied the accusations, and he and wife Pamela set up the ‘False Memory Syndrome Foundation’ (FMSF) in Pennsylvania, United States.

The case of Peter Freyd, the FMSF and the public interest in recovered memories have all led to heated debate and controversy. Jennifer would later cut ties with her parents.

The FMSF was set up in 1992 with the aim of aiding those who had supposedly been accused of child sexual abuse due to recovered memories. The Freyd parents were encouraged by two therapists to set up the foundation.

The FMSF tried to raise awareness of the potential dangers of FMS – and helped sponsor research into the topic.

The FMSF have been criticised by many for allegedly adopting a victim-blaming attitude, and turning a blind eye to sexual abuse. The FMSF became defunct at the end of 2019.

In the present day

In the modern day, there has been a movement towards viewing recovered memories with doubt. Some psychiatric professions go as far as to condemn any practice that involves a therapist helping a patient to recover hidden memories.

Research into the authenticity of methods to try and recover memories has produced very little in the way of supporting its use.

There has always been significant controversy surrounding the use of recovered memories, though modern-day psychiatry has largely made its use in a professional setting as obsolete.

Any professional that does engage in such behaviour risks losing their accreditation and reputation. But for some, recovered memory is possible, and an important element of psychology.

Summary

Memory in itself is something that is an interesting and delicate concept. The phenomenon of uncovered memories is something that has caused significant debate.

Uncovered memories create a catch-22 situation; a person recalls abuse, and accuse someone of doing something, but there is never irrefutable evidence that their recollection is true.

Consequently, it is possible that victims may not be believed, or innocent people are punished – leading to miscarriages of justice. Therefore, it is a very difficult subject.

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References

[1]          Loftus, E., Coan, J. & Pickrell, J. (1996). Manufacturing False Memories Using Bits of Reality. In: Reders, L Implicit Memory and Metacognition. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p195-221.

[2]        Blizard, R. & Shaw, M. (2019). Lost-in-the-Mall: False Memory or False Defense?. Journal of Child Custidy. 16 (1), p20-41.

[3]          Bowers, K. & Farvolden, P. (1996). Revisiting a century-old Freudian slip–From suggestion disavowed to the truth repressed. Psychological Bulletin. 119 (3), p355-380.

[4]          Lilienfeld, S. (2007). Psychological Treatments That Cause Harm. Perspectives on Psychological Sciences. 2 (1), p53-70.     

[5]      Widom, C. & Shepard, R. (1996). Accuracy of adult recollections of childhood victimization: Part 1. Childhood physical abuse. Psychological Assessment. 8 (4), p412-421.

[6]          Wilsnack, S., Wonderlich, S., Kristjanson, A., Vogeltanz-Holm, N. & Wilsnack, R. (2002). Self-reports of forgetting and remembering childhood sexual abuse in a nationally representative sample of US women. Child Abuse & Neglect. 26 (2), p139-147.

[7]        Salter, M. (2017). Organized Abuse in Adulthood: Survivor and Professional Perspectivs. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation. 18 (3), p441-453.

[8]        Scheflin, A. (1999). Ground Lost: The False Memory/Recovered Memory Therapy Debate. Psychiatric Times. 16 (11).