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.

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 claim added credibility because I have read a few books in a formal academic environment.

The next misconception is that only stupid or gullible people can be caught up in a cult. None of the people who had suffered at the hands of this therapist appeared to have any mental deficiency. All except one had approached him because he appeared to offer help with problems they were having, and all were gradually taken to a position of dependence on the guru and total faith in what he had to say to them.

The one exception was a man who was driven almost to the point of suicide by false memories of him raping children. He originally became involved because the therapist seemed to be helping his wife, but he was soon drawn into the circle.

The millions of people who are encouraged to exchange their real families for church congregations and the members of multi-level marketing organisations aren’t stupid. They have found someone who promises to meet their needs and solve their problems.

We have all at some point in our lives bought something that we didn’t really need and regretted the purchase afterwards. Getting conned into a dangerous lifestyle change is just a matter of degree but much harder to undo, particularly when the conman is very believable and the support of other cult members becomes a positive inducement to stay.

The final misconception is about memory itself. People assume that memory is like a video recording, where there might be some missing parts but what is remembered must be factual. In reality, memory is constantly reconstructed from clues, hints and context.

Nobody knows how it really works, but what is well-known is how it doesn’t work. If you believe that memory is infallible (except for the blanks) then it is relatively easy to think that implanting false memories is difficult and that recovered memory therapy is just filling in the blanks.

In fact, it is quite simple to build false memories. I did it as an experiment on myself at university, and it was quite disturbing to have clear memories of something while simultaneously knowing that the events didn’t happen.

Starting from the known and provable fact that people kept offering me cigarettes in the Union bar after lectures, I used a process of reinforcement over several weeks to build memories of taking up and then giving up smoking. At least I knew that the memories were false, but if they had been introduced into my mind without my knowledge I would have had to accept them as being as true as anything else I remembered, such as my wedding or buying my last car.

One important thing to consider, though, is that it didn’t matter if the memories were true or not. This isn’t the case when people have false memories of terrible acts committed on them or by them.

The recovered memory fad in the US finally fell apart when the memories became too ridiculous for anyone to believe them. Without corroborating evidence of the baby farms and human sacrifices, even the most deceived people could be convinced that what they remembered was false. In the Australian case it was memories of people in the cult compound raping each other that raised doubts, because it required all parties to have the same memories.

The sad part is that while the victims in this television show now know the truth and can start to recover their lives and relationships, the therapist is still open for business and looking for more, even suggesting that he would like to start on children.