Is Long Term Memory Accurate?
One of the biggest controversies in memory research concerns the accuracy of memory. Some people believe that memories are highly accurate. Others believe that while memories MAY be accurate, they are also subject to distortion. In general, research supports the latter view.
There are two major foci for the controversies over the accuracy of memories.
1. "Flashbulb" Memories
People used to believe (and some still do) that under some circumstances, we could form a detailed, perfect memory of what was happening when we heard about a distinctive, surprising, significant event. Such memories are termed "flashbulb" memories. It was believed that these memories were similar in detail to the type of image we get when we take a photograph. (At the moment that the flash goes off- everything is "permanently" recorded.) It was part of memory dogma that these memories were accurate and resistant to fading.
An example that is likely to have led to a "flashbulb" memory for your generation is what you were doing when you first learned about the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. People who are old enough also have "flashbulb" memories of what we were doing when we heard that Kennedy had been shot, or when we heard that the Challenger (space shuttle) had blown up.
When memory researchers actually TESTED whether "flashbulb" memories were accurate and resistant to fading, the answer was "no." Ulric Neisser, who was at Emory at the time, actually interviewed Emory students right after the Challenger blew up. He asked them what they were doing and who they were with. Then he found the same students a year later and asked them the same questions. He found that, although students still strongly believed that their memories were accurate, many student's memories had changed over the course of the year, which meant that "flashbulb" memories are subject to some of the same inaccuracies and distortions as other memories.
2. The Repressed Memory/ Recovered Memory/ False Memory Controversy
In the late 80's and early 90's the media were filled with accounts of people who believe that they had been sexually abused as children, then had "repressed" these painful memories, only to "recover" them later. Parents (and grandparents) were accused of sexual abuse on the basis of these repressed memories and occasionally even sentenced to jail. Obviously it is important to know whether such recovered memories are accurate.
Repressed memories - memories that cannot consciously be recalled for some period of time. The memory loss involves significant events, and is not part of ordinary forgetting. Freud believed that repression serves to keep painful memories out of consciousness, therefore decreasing anxiety.What does research tell us about the repressed memory/ recovered memory controversy? First, it is clear that under some conditions, significant traumatic memories may be repressed. Second, recovered memories MAY be accurate, but they are not guaranteed to be accurate. In some cases, evidence is available that clearly contradicts these "recovered" memories.
Recovered memories - memories that have not been continuously present for some significant even. Presumably, recovered memories are "de-repressed."
Recovered memories are most often recovered in the course of psychotherapy. Memory researchers such as Elizabeth Loftus believe that, in some cases, therapists may induce false memories in susceptible patients. Loftus has written a number of articles on this topic. Two of them are available on the web. You may access them by clicking on the links below.
Remembering Dangerously - an article by Elizabeth Loftus, originally published in The Skeptical Inquirer (March, 1995), Volume 19, no. 2, p. 20 http://www.csicop.org/si/9503/memory.htmlLoftus and her colleagues have clearly demonstrated that it is relatively easy to induce the formation of false memories. You may read one of her articles on creating false memories by going to http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/sciam.htm. This is the article on "Creating False Memories" (originally published in Scientific American, September 1997, vol 277, #3, pp. 70-75) in which Loftus and her colleagues were able to convince subjects that they had been lost in a shopping mall as children.
Truth or invention: exploring the repressed memory syndrome - excerpts from a chapter in Elizabeth Loftus' book, 'The Myth of Repressed Memory' This excerpt discusses Loftus' investigation of one of the most famous cases involving recovery of repressed (and apparently false) memories http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/Cosmo.html
A third controversy on the accuracy of memory centers on the accuracy of children's memories. The first thing to realize is that most people do not have memories of events that occurred before they were 4 or 5. (Despite some well-publicized claims of people remembering very early events, there is little evidence to support the accuracy of such memories.) This period of normal memory loss is known as childhood amnesia.
Questions have arisen about the accuracy of children's memories, particularly when young children are asked to recall and testify about memories of abuse. Many people believe that young children were not capable of lying about such events. Careful research shows, however, that it is relatively easy to induce false memories in young children, especially when they have been repeatedly coached and/or questioned. Bottom line: while children's memories of trauma may be accurate, they are not guaranteed to be accurate.
This page was last revised on 09/09/2008.