Photo by Tjook, via Flickr
Photo by Tjook, via Flickr
ScienceOnly Human

And the Memory Wars Wage On

I was reminded of the “memory wars” of the 1990s yesterday when listening to an episode of Marc Maron’s popular WTF podcast. The guest, comedian Tom Arnold, told Maron about his traumatic childhood, which included an alcoholic mother who abandoned him and a neighbor who molested him. Arnold said he came to terms with the trauma through therapy, which culminated in him confronting the neighbor in person. The man denied it, apparently yelling at Arnold that his memories were wrong. It was a heartbreaking story, and obvious from Arnold’s telling that he deeply believes his memories are not at all wrong.

I don’t know any details about Arnold’s case other than what he recounted to Maron. I want to believe that his memories are sound, and that confronting his molester provided him with some form of relief. (Update, 3/6: And, as a commenter pointed out below, Arnold also said on the podcast that he found several other neighborhood boys who said they had been molested by the same man.) But it must be said that this sort of revelation — in which a person uncovers, through therapy or hypnosis, a memory that had been repressed for years or even decades — happened a lot in the early 1990s.

In October 1991, Arnold’s wife at the time, Roseanne (Barr) Arnold, was on the cover of People Magazinecover of People Magazine with the headline: “Roseanne’s Brave Confession: I AM AN INCEST SURVIVOR.” According to the piece, Roseanne had repressed these memories until Tom, then her fiancé, told her what he had uncovered about his own childhood. Immediately after hearing his story, “I began to shake and sweat,” Roseanne told People. “Pictures started to appear before my eyes—surreal and frightening, looming large, then crystallizing into my mother’s face. I remember being abused.” After more sessions with a therapist, Roseanne began to dream about specific abuse memories.

Just a few months earlier, former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur had made similar claims. And it wasn’t just celebrities. Stories of everyday adults suddenly recovering memories of childhood abuse appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, and Time, among others.

Why was this happening? It was due, at least in part, to several popular books that provided instructions for recovering repressed memories. “The books urged therapists to ask their clients about childhood incest,” notes William Saletan in his excellent 2010 Slate series2010 Slate series2010 Slate series on memory. And they had a huge impact. “Women were suing their parents for millions of dollars. Hundreds of accused families sought help.”

As these accusations mounted, several high-profile psychology researchers began speaking out against the idea of repressed memories. In a 1993 article in American Psychologist1993 article in American Psychologist, memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus pointed out that little if any scientific evidence supported the idea of repressed memories: Nobody knew how commonly traumatized people repress memories, or how accurate the memories are, or how juries are likely to react to them. And considering the lawsuits waged against alleged abusers, Loftus found this lack of evidence disturbing. “When we move from the privacy of the therapy session, in which the client’s reality may be the only reality that is important, into the courtroom, in which there can be but a single reality, then we as citizens in a democratic society are entitled to more solid evidence,” she wrote.

This debate between practicing therapists and research psychologists became known as the memory wars. Over time, scientific criticisms by Loftus and others got more attention in the press, and some accusers recanted their stories. Loftus’s own research helped drive the increased skepticism. As Saletan’s article describes in depth, Loftus’s studies showed just how easily false memories can be implanted by a trusted source.

Whatever happened to the memory wars? Do people still believe in the power of repressed memories? Loftus and her colleagues addressed these questions in last month’s issue of Psychological Science.

Their study includes two experiments. In the first, the researchers gave 390 undergraduates surveys about how memory works. The surveys asked participants whether they agreed or disagreed with various statements. Some of the statements — such as “Memory is constantly being reconstructed and changed every time we remember something” and “Memory can be unreliable” — are supported by lots of evidence. The respondents seem to have known that, for 91 percent of them agreed with the first statement and 86 percent with the second.

Other statements focused on repressed memories, which as I mentioned are not rooted in a whole lot of evidence. But the students felt otherwise: 81 percent agreed that “traumatic memories are often repressed,” and 70 percent agreed that “repressed memories can be retrieved in therapy accurately.” And 86 percent agreed that if a person has emotional problems and needs therapy, childhood sexual assault is a plausible explanation — even if the person has no memory of any kind of abuse.

But who cares about college kids. What about the opinions of mental health professionals? Turns out that many of them also believe in repressed memories, though in somewhat lower numbers than they did in the 90s.

The researchers surveyed hundreds of clinical psychologists, experimental psychologists, psychoanalysts, hypnotherapists, primal therapists, neuro-linguistic programming therapists, life coaches, scientologists (!), and family therapists, as well as (via Mechanical Turk) members of the public in the U.S., U.K., and India. Here’s a comparison of how the beliefs of “mainstream PhD psychotherapists” have changed over the past decade:

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Patihis et al, 2013

They have evidently lost some faith in hypnosis, and have gained respect for the idea of implanting false memories. On the question of the objectivity of repressed memories, though, the responses haven’t changed much, with agreements hovering between 11 and 23 percent.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, experimental psychologists are more skeptical of repressed memories than are psychoanalysts, and psychoanalysts are more skeptical than “alternative therapists.” Concerning the statement, “Traumatic memories are often repressed,” 27 percent of experimental psychologists agreed, compared with 69 percent of psychoanalysts and 90 percent of neuro-linguistic programming therapists, the study found.

Loftus and her team take these data to mean that there’s still lots to be done in the way of disseminating findings about memory research to mainstream practitioners and the public at large. “These findings suggest that the memory wars are not over,” they write. “Nevertheless, these battles may now be limited largely to discrete pockets of practicing clinicians, especially those with specific theoretical views regarding the nature of memory.”

This may be true, but also glazes over a few academics who are more sympathetic to the idea of repressed memories. Take Ross Cheit, a professor of public policy and political science at Brown University. Cheit directs the “Recovered Memory Project,” an online archive of cases of repressed memories that have been independently corroborated. Cheit wasn’t happy with this recent Loftus paper, to say the least. “The article is so flawed that one scarcely knows where to begin,” he wrote on the Project’s website. He points to several studies showing that trauma can, rarely, be repressed. Loftus and her colleagues, he adds, “offer a false dichotomy between ‘scientists’ and ‘practitioners,’ ignoring the substantial number of research scientists, like Jennifer Freyd, whose work challenges their beliefs.”

To recap: In the 1990s, a lot of psychologists believed in repressed memories of abuse, and a lot of people claimed to recover such memories. Many of these were probably cases in which the abuse was suggested in therapy, but didn’t actually happen in real life. And some of these, some unknown but small number, were probably real cases of abuse.

Clearly Tom Arnold believes his case was real, and now many of Marc Maron’s millions of podcast listeners may also believe in the power of repressed memories.

For what it’s worth, Arnold’s now ex-wife, Roseanne, has revised her story of abuse. In early 2011, Roseanne appeared on the Oprah show and said that she regretted her 1991 allegations. “I think it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done,” Roseanne told Oprah. She said that although her parents were “abusive,” she was wrong to use the word “incest.” She attributed her behavior to a combination of psychiatric drugs and mental illness, saying, “I totally lost touch with reality in a big, big way.”