What about Recovered Memories?

Jennifer J. Freyd, University of Oregon

 Short Definition |  Recommended Review Articles |  Recommended Web Sites | Context & Controversy |  Two Common conceptual tangles |  A word of caution | FAQs

Short Definition

Sivers, Schooler, and Freyd (2002, p 169) define recovered memory as "The recollection of a memory that is perceived to have been unavailable for some period of time."

Recommended Review Articles about Recovered Memories

For a current summary of the evidence regarding recovered memories and known mechanisms and motivations for recovered memories, a good starting source is:

Sivers, H., Schooler, J. , Freyd, J. J. (2002) Recovered memories. In V.S. Ramachandran (Ed.) Encyclopedia of the Human Brain, Volume 4.(pp 169-184). San Diego, California and London: Academic Press. Full text at http://dynamic.uoregon.edu/~jjf/recoveredmemories.pdf.

Another useful and comprehensive source of information about recovered memories with a slightly different focus (more on the societal context, less on cognitive mechanisms) is:

Stoler, L., Quina, K., DePrince, A.P &. Freyd, J. J. (2001) Recovered memories. In J. Worrell (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Women and Gender, Volume Two. (pp 905-917) San Diego, California and London: Academic Press. (No electronic copy currently available but many libraries have this book.)

Recommended Web Sites about Recovered Memories Research

There are a lot of web sites on this topic. Quality varies. Here are two web pages I have found particularly useful regarding research about recovered memories. (Each of these sites has links to more sites. Also see more links at the end of this page.)

Recovered Memory: Context & Controversy

If you forget where you left your keys, and then later remember the location, you have just recovered a memory. This experience is fairly common and not very controversial (but even so, psychologists still debate how and why it happens). However, usually in everyday language people use the term "recovered memory" to refer to memory for something traumatic, such as remembering being abused as a child and feeling you had not remembered this for a long time. The issues around these sorts of recovered memories are complex and controversial . This is true both in the sense that the psychology is complex (how and why does it happen) and it is true in the emotional, political, legal, and societal sense when people question whether the memories are accurate.

The charged controversy about recovered memoies of abuse can sometimes make it is difficult to think clearly and difficult to get accurate information. Of course, the most charged issue of all is whether a recovered memory of abuse is true or accurate. If you think about the situation in which you temporarily cannot remember where you left your keys, you probably can remember times when you later remembered the location (and later remembered putting those keys in a special place) and you were accurate (a true recovered memory), and other times when you thought you remembered the location but you were wrong because the keys were actually somewhere else (a mistaken recovered memory). There were probably other times you thought you remembered your key location all along, but when you checked the place you were sure you left your keys they were not there (a mistaken continuous memory). Finally, and fortunately, sometimes you thought you remembered the location of your keys all along, and you checked the location and they were there just as you remembered (a true continuous memory). The possibilities of true or mistaken, and recovered and continuous memory, don't seem so remarkable when it comes to memory for keys. But when it comes to memory for abuse, the issues can get confusing. One big difference between memory for key location and abuse is that we can almost always check our memory against reality when it comes to key location, but evidence for prior abuse is much harder to agree about. Another important difference is that usually a lost and found memory for key location does not inspire disagreement with other people, whereas a lost and found abuse memory has a high probability of inspiring serious conflict.

Is this web page balanced? Sometimes when people write about recovered memories they claim that their own viewpoint is balanced. Often each author or researcher thinks his or her position is balanced and that other (different) viewpoints are extreme. (It would be fairly strange if you heard someone say "my own position is an extreme and unbalanced one.") For this reason I like to say "Balance is in the eye of the beholder." In this case you are the beholder.

My goal with this web page is to offer a few tools for thinking about recovered memories for abuse and to give you some pointers for getting more information. My own research is not so much on recovered memories per se, but rather it is focused on betrayal trauma theory, which does attempt to explain aspects of recovered memories along with other kinds of not-knowing and unawareness. The recovered memory and false memory controversy has often seemed to me like an annoying distraction from my main research focus. Yet I have felt at times that I must address the issues in order to dispell confusion that might otherwise interfer with the ability of my readers or audience members to attend to my main focus. For more on that main focus, betrayal trauma theory, I hope you will visit my web page "What is betrayal trauma? What is betrayal trauma theory?" at http://dynamic.uoregon.edu/~jjf/defineBT.html.

There is so much that has been written about the recovered memory controversy that I won't attempt to provide a list of references here. The web sites suggested above do list many good references on the topic. Also, in response to this page some colleagues have suggested references that I have listed at: http://dynamic.uoregon.edu/~jjf/suggestedrefs.html. I just provide here one recommended article regarding the controversy itself: "Memory, Abuse, and Science: Questioning Claims about the False Memory Syndrome Epidemic--Award address for the American Psychological Association's Award for Distinguished Contributions to Public Service" is an article by Kenneth Pope, published in the American Psychologist. The citation and full text can be found at http://kspope.com/memory.shtml

Some papers I have written that focus on the issues of recovered memories and the ethics in the science surrounding the topic are listed here (abstracts and ordering information can be found at: http://dynamic.uoregon.edu/~jjf/traumapapers.html.) My books also have sections on this issue. (And a new addition: A commentary about February 2003 media coverage of Bugs Bunny in Disneyland.)

Two Common conceptual tangles about recovered memories

1. Confusing phenomena, mechanisms, and motivation

To define more precisely what we know and do not know, we must untangle the several issues involved and ask scientifically tractable questions, while remaining compassionate and aware of the high stakes involved in these issues. First, we must distinguish phenomena (what), motivations (why), and mechanisms (how). The phenomena are apparent forgetting and later remembering a significant event (or series of event). Why they occur is a question of motivation, and how they occur a question of mechanisms. A related problem is the language used. When a phrase like "repressed memories" is used, do people mean the phenemona, motivations, or purported mechanisms? It is often not clear, and sometimes the phenomena of recovered memories are discredited becuase one particular mechanism of "repression" is not supported by a particular research study. These issues are addressed in some detail in:

Freyd, J. J. (1996). Betrayal trauma: The logic of forgetting childhood abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

2. Conflating memory accuracy with memory persistence

Memory accuracy is the degree to which a memory is historically true. Memory persistence is the degree to which a memory has remained available over time. These are conceptually independent or distinct issues, but they have often been very mixed up in the controversy about recovered memories. The image below is intended to illustrate in a schematic way the conceptual distinction between these two dimensions of memory.

The two dimesions are conceptually distinct and not necessarily correlated - however they have often been collapsed into a single dimension. An empirical question regards the relationship between memory accuracy and memory persistence. Are unavailable memories when recalled more likely to be true or mistaken than are continuously available memories? Authors have made both claims (that recovered memories are more likely to be true or that recovered memories are more likely to be mistaken). However, the research does not clearly support either claim. This issue is addressed in more detail in:

Freyd, J. J. (1998) Science in the Memory Debate. Ethics & Behavior, 8, 101-113.

Memory accuracy and memory persistence are themselves each complicated and challenging dimensions of memory, with long histories of research in psychology. Memories vary in degrees of accuracy and persistence; rarely are there absolutes (such as a perfectly true, completely mistaken, perfectly available, or completely unavailable memory). Memory accuracy is further complicated by the fact that historical truth -- what really happened -- usually has elements of interpretation (people often disagree about the interpretation of current events, never mind historical events), and that a memory might be extraordinarily accurate in one regard and quite innacurate in another regard. Memory persistence is complicated by the possibility that people's own introspections about memory availability may be subject to error (e.g.: one may forget that something that had in fact been previously remembered; or one may overestimate the availability of memory in hindsight). Memory persistence is also complicated by the fact that memory itself is a function of many separate sub-systems so that, for instance, we can fail to have conscious recall of an event but show through our behavior that we have learned from that particular situation. Please see Sivers, Schooler, and Freyd (2002) and Freyd (1996) for more on the cognitive psychology of memory.

A word of caution: individual cases deserve individual consideration

Sometimes it is tempting to apply research findings to individual situations. There are indeed ways we can use research findings to better understand our experiences and confusing situations. However, it is important to realize that research findings usually are at best revealing general trends and probabilities and may not apply well to a given situation. For istance, research on lung cancer has revealed that smoking increases the risk. This may be an important fact to consider when deciding whether to smoke, or in investigating a case of lung cancer. However we wouldn't want to claim that someone who smokes necessarily will get lung cancer, nor even that someone who smokes and has lung cancer necessarily would not have had lung cancer without the smoking. Although the relationship between smoking and lung cancer is strong it is not absolute. Similarly, in the case of recovered memories we may be able to gain a lot of insight and understanding from research, but no matter how much we learn from research, "individual cases of contested memories will continue to deserve open-minded individual scrutiny" (Freyd, 1994, p 324).

Freyd, J.J. (1994). Betrayal-trauma: Traumatic amnesia as an adaptive response to childhood abuse. Ethics & Behavior, 4, 307-329.

Some FAQs

Why do people forget and remember? How do people forget and remember?

How and why would anyone forget something so seemingly significant as childhood molestation and then remember it decades later? The encyclopedia articles cited at the beginning of this article review various motivations for and mechanisms for recovered memories of abuse. The author's attempt to answer these questions inspired Betrayal Trauma theory. For more on this please see my web page: "What is a Betrayal Trauma? What is Betrayal Trauma Theory."

Are demands for silence a factor in not remembering?

Explicit and implicit demands for silence (see Veldhuis & Freyd, 1999, cited at What is DARVO?) may lead to a complete failure to even discuss an experience. Experiences that have never been shared with anyone else may have a different internal structure than shared experiences (see What is Shareability?).

What about gender and recovered memory?

Gender has been a significant issue in the recovered memory debate all along. Two sources of information about gender and recovered memory that I recommend are:

Rivera, M. (Ed.) (1999), Fragment by Fragment: Feminist Perspectives on Memory and Child Sexual Abuse. Charlottetown, PEI Canada: Gynergy Books.

Stoler, L., Quina, K., DePrince, A.P &. Freyd, J. J. (2001) Recovered memories. In J. Worrell (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Women and Gender, Volume Two. (pp 905-917) San Diego, California and London: Academic Press.

It appears that men experience more non-betrayal traumas than do women, while women experience more betrayal traumas than do men. (Goldberg & Freyd, under review). Women may seem to have more recovered memories of abuse because they may have more experiences with the sorts of events that lead to forgetting. (DePrince & Freyd, 2002)

DePrince, A.P. & Freyd, J.J. (2002). The intersection of gender and betrayal in trauma. In R. Kimerling, P.C. Oumette, & J. Wolfe (Eds.) Gender and PTSD. (pp 98-113). New York: Guilford Press.

Goldberg, L. & Freyd, J.J. (under review). The brief betrayal trauma survey: personality correlates of potentially traumatic experiences in a community sample.

How do I cite this page?

Freyd, J.J. (2003). What about Recovered Memories? Retrieved April 1, 2003 from http://dynamic.uoregon.edu/~jjf/whatabout.html

How do I order the articles mentioned on this page?

For ordering information and additional books, articles, and presentations on betrayal trauma theory see: http://dynamic.uoregon.edu/~jjf/trauma.html.

What are some local pages related to this one?

What do I do if I need support for myself or a loved one?

I am not a therapist myself and I am not able to answer most of the email I get, so writing to me is not likely to help. I am sorry about that. What I do recommend is that you visit David Baldwin's Trauma Information Pages, and select the "Supportive Information" section there, or go directly to that section at http://www.trauma-pages.com/pg4.htm. The web sites listed earlier on this page are also full of useful links that may help you find the support you are looking for. There are also very useful resources and links provided at the sites of the Sidran Foundation and The Leadership Council of Mental Health, Justice, and the Law .


Jennifer Freyd Last update 04-May-2003 , jjf@dynamic.uoregon.edu
Please note: Due to the large volume of correspondence I receive, I cannot answer most messages.
Copyright 1995-2003 Jennifer J. Freyd.
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