It seems that our memories are less than trustworthy, and Dutch experimental psychologist Elke Geraerts knows some impressive tricks of the trade for proving this: "We did an experiment with children, showing them pictures from when they were four years old. Some were true pictures but there were also fakes, doctored to show the child in a hot air balloon. And it was very easy [for the children] to get a false memory of being in this balloon." If a computer-manipulated image is all it takes to make children remember a hot air balloon trip that never happened, can verbal cues, or suggestions, lead to the "recovery" of traumatic false memories, such as ones of childhood abuse? Experimental psychologist Dr Geraerts, from the University of Maastricht, certainly thinks so, as her recent research suggests.
A fierce debate, dubbed 'The Memory Wars' , has been simmering since it first emerged in the 1980s. Unusually large numbers of people in the United States began claiming to have "recovered" memories of childhood sexual abuse during therapy sessions. Sceptical experimental psychologists pointed out the lack of research. How was the phenomenon of recovered memories possible? Elke Geraerts, who doesn't believe that these "found" memories were ever lost, explains the possible mechanisms:
"There is the possibility that the memories are based on authentic abuse events. If you are abused when you are five, you don't understand what is going… But once a person is in their twenties [a trigger can] make them realise abuse for what it is. Then people are so shocked and surprised that they assume they have repressed these memories when they have actually just reclassified them."
However, there are specific situations where these memories arrive as a result of therapy, and in these cases Elke Geraerts is much more sceptical about the validity of the memories. The cases all follow a similar pattern: people with depression will visit a psychotherapist, who will search for causes in their childhood.
"When a therapist is suggestive, for example, using guided imagery in which you ask subjects to imagine being abused, at a certain point, maybe also combined with hypnosis, subjects falsely recall these abusive events."
Accusations of sexual abuse have torn families apart and yet very little research has been done using the people at the heart of the controversy- those claiming to have recovered these memories.. The team at Maastricht University is only the second group in the world to conduct their investigations using people who've actually reported having recovered memories.
Dr Geraerts (photo) compared several different groups; people who claimed to have recovered memories of childhood abuse from therapy sessions, people who had always remembered their abuse and non-abused adults.
Participants had to perform memory tests at Dr Geraerts' laboratory. These measure how prone people are to creating false memories and how reliable they consider their memories to be.
The false memory test presents subjects with a list of associated words, for example, pillow, duvet, dream, night; all linked around the theme of sleep. However the actual word 'sleep' is missing and yet many people will 'remember' it when recalling the list of words. From tests like these, you can chart the susceptibility of individuals to creating or receiving false memories.
"My research found that people claiming recovered memories were more prone to recalling the suggested lure (a word that wasn't present.)"
The implications of this work are huge, particularly as suggestive therapy is quite commonplace. But how much do you tell the people who took part in the study? Dr Geraerts is not happy to comment on individual cases. She points out that just because someone is suggestible, doesn't mean that they haven't been abused. And she is keen to stress that her results are on a group level.
"I'm not saying to people at a personal level, 'You have a false memory.'"
But she is hoping that her future work at Harvard University will provide more definite answers; a set of cognitive tests that will provide a very high degree of accuracy as to who is likely to have false memories. And even then, there is no guarantee that this will help the actual sufferers. Science is notorious for providing degrees of probability rather than definitive truths. And given the choice between a high probability that you are wrong and your own memories, which would you trust?