Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Misremembering the Past

By Peter Bowditch

It is quite simple to build false memories, even ones as serious as sexual abuse.

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Earlier this year the ABC’s Four Corners program featured a story about a therapist who specialised in implanting false memories of sexual abuse into the minds of his patients. This sort of thing has been going on for years, but what made this case different is that the mental manipulation took place in an environment that resembled a cult, complete with a guru and a closed community set apart from the rest of the world. The program raised several points about how the general public perceive therapists, cults and their members, and the workings of memory itself.

The first misconception is about the qualifications of therapists. Much like the practice of alternative medicine, the only qualification necessary to declare oneself a therapist or a counsellor is to call oneself a therapist or counsellor. Some titles are legally protected, such as “psychiatrist”, but as long as these titles are avoided there are no rules. (A similar case is in giving advice about diet, where the title “dietician” is protected but anyone can call themselves a nutritionist.)

I happen to have spent a lot of time at university studying cognitive psychology, but I am in no way qualified to offer advice to people with psychological problems. There is, however, nothing stopping me from hanging up a shingle and advertising that I can assist people with emotional problems, and I could even...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.