The Truth about False Memories

The Truth about False Memories

I was 17 years old and a proud member of the U.S. Naval Reserves in my home town. I had been to boot camp and now it was time for me to do a summer cruise on a Destroyer Escort, out of Chicago Illinois. We were to cruise up the middle of Lake Michigan, into Lake Huron and on to Owen Sound Canada. It was a great adventure that I will never forget.

I loved visiting the town of Owen Sound. It was so quaint and I had the strongest feeling that I had been there before. It was so very familiar and oddly comforting to me.

I clearly recall standing at the top of a gentle hill with a two-lane road running down through a lovely small town, with stores and shops along the way. At the end of the road was a long dock stretching out into a large blue bay of Lake Huron, stretching far beyond.

I recall telling my beloved Grandmother all about my cruise and she happily told me she was born and lived in Owen Sound Canada as a young child. I was stunned! It was an amazing revelation for me.

Now, with Grandma gone, and in my own 76th year, I cannot count the number of times that I have told this fantastic story to family and friends. I had never been to Owen Sound before in my life and so to me it was a miraculous event.

Later, when I attended college and studied psychology, starting in 1965, I formulated a theory to explain my powerful sense of deja vu while looking into the small picturesque town of Owen Sound, Canada. I came to believe there could be some underlying genetic structure to the memory.

Others, over the passing years, were fascinated with my experience and my theory.

This summer, my brother and his wife drove to Owen Sound to research my Grandmother’s family who lived there for a time. I asked them to take a picture of this scene that I recalled from my 17th year, when I visited there.

I was thunder-struck when they returned with photographs of the town and the area and reported that all they could find was a cement industrial area with a long commercial cement loading dock and no hill, no two lane road and no quaint stores along its sloping way down to a wooden dock reaching out to a beautiful bay. They were disappointed and I was flabbergasted!

To this very day, I am completely unable to explain the great clarity and deep belief in my false memory of Owen Sound, Canada.

Later as a Professor of Psychology at Indiana University at South Bend, a distinguished visiting professor ,Elizabeth Loftus, presented her ground-breaking research on the topic of false memories to the faculty of our Psychology Department and later to our student body.

The following Wikipedia article summarizes some of Dr. Loftus’ findings on false memories and on repressed and recovered memories. It also documents the hazards of questioning cherished beliefs based upon scientific findings. Dr. Loftus has been sued (she was vindicated) and threatened with harm for demonstrating that our memories are not video recordings of realities, but are malleable and imperfect attempts to capture and recall life’s often subjective and misleading events.

The facts are clear: Memories, as well as so-called repressed and recovered memories, can be very inaccurate. Sometimes with tragic consequences for all of those involved. Much as we see playing-out today in the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Please see the following about Dr. Loftus and her research.

Decades of research have not validated the existence of repressed and recovered memories in humans.

Please read this short summary of these research findings below.

If you are so inclined, I invite you to read the entire article The following italicized quoted paragraphs are to be found in the article’s URL located right below it. 

     Sociological understandings of the influence authority figures and groups may have on an individual’s belief system have provided insight into the mechanism by which mental images may be taken to be actual memories. A growing number of books and articles by philosophers of science have decried the misuse of science and over-reliance on anecdotal evidence in this area. Some have cited “repressed memories” as an example of “pseudoscience.” [18] In short, the theory of “repression” has been widely critiqued by professionals in many related scientific disciplines, each concluding that the theory does not conform to well-established findings in their own area.

     Most memory researchers are in agreement on this matter. In a legal brief filed by R.C. Barden, Ph.D., J.D. in the case of Taus v. Loftus, [19] more than 65 scientists and clinicians, a “Who’s Who” in the world of psychiatry, psychology and cognitive science, agreed with the inclusion of the following clear statement: [20]

    Decades of research and scientific debate have clarified over and over again, that the notion of traumatic events being somehow “repressed” and later accurately recovered is one of the most pernicious bits of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry.

    The signers represent the relevant scientific community for theoretical disputes if the issue is a claim of repressed and recovered memory.

   Both scientists and the proponents of the belief in repression and recovered memories present studies that they claim support their conflicting positions. In fact, both sides frequently cite the same articles but reach different conclusions about them. This is a very confusing situation for non-scientists, including potential jurors. (For a clear discussion about basic concepts involved in the interpretation of research findings that explain the fallacies of non-scientific interpretation. See H. Pope, Psychology Astray.

The implications of these findings for the undocumented, unproven accusations of sexual improprieties against Judge Kavenaugh should be clear to all who wish to honestly evaluate the available data.

Wake-Up America!

V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D.

Practicing Psychologist and Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Indiana University South Bend

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