April 1st, 2015

Psychologists weigh in about memory

After news anchor Brian Williams recanted a story he told about his time in a military helicopter in Iraq, much discussion ensued about whether Williams was lying, distorting or misremembering the incident. While area psychologists can’t speak specifically to Williams’ case, they weighed in on the subject of memory.

James Claiborn Ph.D. ABPP, ACT, a licensed psychologist in Maine, said people can forget all sorts of things – and sometimes do.

“There’s this sort of myth out there that memory records things like a recording and that you can play it back. That’s absolutely wrong,” Claiborn said. “When we remember something – or recall it, if you will – we are actually reconstructing events. And every time we do that, we may reconstruct it a little bit differently.”

Daniel L. Schacter, Ph.D, professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of “The Seven Sins of Memory,” said episodic memory is not a literal reproduction of the past, but is instead constructed by pulling together information from different sources.

Schacter said memory and imagination call on many of the same brain regions and networks, making it less surprising the two can sometimes be confused. “Our memories are very good in allowing us to use what we stored about the past to imagine different ways the future might play out,” Schacter said. “A memory that works that way is good because it’s flexible, but can also be prone to errors.”

Schacter cited studies of young adults where typically between 20 and 40 percent of participants claim to remember events that never happened to them, such as being rescued by a lifeguard or lost in a mall.

“Usually, those kinds of things happen in response to some kind of repeated suggested probing or imagining that some kinds of events occurred,” Schacter said.

Schacter said clinicians, when working with clients, should do their best to avoid any kind of suggestions about what might have happened or what they think happened. “Avoid using suggestive probes and things of that nature because a lot of these problems result from suggestive questioning and probing – that’s when you can get people into trouble,” Schacter said.

The topic of False Memory Syndrome (FMS) and recovered/repressed memories of trauma has been controversial since the 1990s.

Claiborn said there’s no evidence that traumatic events can be repressed and that talks of repression are cause for considerable concern. “There are fairly well-known people out there who talk about treating abusive histories and PTSD, things like that, who routinely seem to suggest or outright state that all this memory is being repressed or recovered,” Claiborn said. “But if you look fairly carefully at the research of this topic, there’s no supporting evidence of that being possible and it would require some sort of special mechanism of memory that nobody has ever been able to demonstrate.”

“On the other hand, people asking questions in certain ways or using other ways to try to ‘recover’ memories, can cause people to think they are remembering things that never happened,” Claiborn said.

“Using methods like dream interpretation or hypnosis to recover memories is actually fairly likely to come up with something very questionable and may actually be harmful,” Claiborn said.

Anthony Quintiliani, Ph.D., LADC, private practice psychology consultant and trainer in Vermont, has provided clinical workshops on how to avoid FMS.

FMS refers to a clinical condition – largely induced by therapists – in which a patient comes to believe with stronger conviction that they may have been abused (emotionally, physically, sexually) in the past, Quintiliani said. This condition is most often produced when a therapist of psychoanalytically-oriented, psychodynamic and/or hypnotic therapies “suggested” to the patient by therapeutic actions that if they believed it happened, then it most likely did happen, Quintiliani explained in an email. It is not a case of clear recollection of specific traumatic injury, but rather “a feeling, sensation, or vague memory that a trauma did occur,” he said.

“In trying to help their patients, many experienced and unexperienced helpers made errors in professional judgment – thus engaging patients in a discovery process (some via trance states) to find out what happened,” Quintiliani said. “In the worst-case scenario, the patient ends up with very firm beliefs that someone they knew perpetrated a trauma on them when they were younger, and that that trauma had been ‘repressed.’”

Quintiliani said in some cases, it is possible that trauma did occur – but highly unlikely that such trauma was repressed in memory.

Quintiliani said many therapists were sued for using nonstandard and experimental treatment techniques with their patients; some also lost their licenses. The field of psychotherapy was harmed, with accusations of quackery, he said.

Quintiliani recommends clinicians stick to evidence-based treatment interventions and approaches such as cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. For clinicians who want to use approaches like EMDR, hypnosis, or Jungian therapy, they should be certain to obtain advanced training and good clinical supervision, he said.

By Pamela Berard

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