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Sex abuse and the fallibility of human memory

In December, we wrote about the fact that victims of sex abuse and other violent crime commonly experience lapses in memory and hazy recall of details. This phenomenon is not evidence that a victim is lying. Rather, research has shown that this is often a byproduct of the way that the human brain copes with trauma.

Contrary to popular belief, human memory is both fallible and malleable. The results of a recent Canadian study reveal that under the right circumstances, people can be implanted with false memories, even vivid and detailed ones.

Canadian researchers worked with 60 university students. Each student was interviewed in three, 40-minute sessions over the course of three weeks. Prior to interviewing participants, researchers contacted the students’ primary caregivers and asked for real-life details about things that happened to the students between ages 11 and 14.

Each participant was then reminded about two stories from his or her past. One was real, and the other one was entirely false (save for a few factual details learned in parent interviews). The made-up stories detailed a crime that the student had committed in their youth (assault or theft, for instance) or an emotionally charged experience from their past (a personal injury or the loss of a large sum of money).

After just three interview sessions, 71 percent of students who had been fed a lie about a past crime had developed a false memory of the event. Among those who had been fed a lie about an emotionally charged childhood experience, 76 percent had developed a false memory.

If a person can be implanted with a significant false memory solidified by mere wisps of actual memory, doesn’t it seem equally likely that memory can be just as delicate when a person experiences severe trauma like sexual abuse?

The difference between remembering false memories and forgetting real ones is that after a significant trauma, a victim is typically left with triggers (often unconscious) that evoke an incredibly visceral reaction. Even if they can’t remember details of exactly what happened, they almost assuredly remember something terrible. After that point, they may be able to work with a well-trained mental health professional to work through the traumatic feelings and unlock the memory.

Anyone who has lived through sexual abuse and has mustered the courage to face it and report it deserves the benefit of the doubt – not skepticism and shame.

Source: Association for Psychological Science, “People Can Be Convinced They Committed a Crime That Never Happened,” Jan. 15, 2015

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