Recovering memories that never left

Some people who spontaneously recover memories of childhood sexual abuse have forgotten that they recalled the abuse earlier

There may be no single, simple explanation for reports of recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. Witness the first evidence that people who report such recall display either of two cognitive profiles, one signaling a susceptibility to retrieving false memories and the other a tendency to have forgotten earlier recollections of actual abuse.

Members of the first group typically salvage child sex-abuse memories gradually via psychotherapy that includes hypnosis and other suggestive techniques, say psychologist Elke Geraerts of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and her colleagues. Those in the second group suddenly recover memories of abuse, due to unexpected reminders of what happened, the researchers assert in the January Psychological Science.

The new research is based on the results of memory tests taken by 120 middle-aged volunteers, mostly women. The work reveals that different ways of remembering and forgetting correspond to how people recover memories of child abuse.

Spontaneous recall of actual childhood sexual abuse often produces an illusion of not having remembered those events earlier, Geraerts contends. Her team refers to this phenomenon, which hinges on having recalled the same event in different contexts, as the forgot-it-all-along effect.

Psychologist and study coauthor Jonathan Schooler of the University of California, Santa Barbara, has documented real-life instances of the forgot-it-all-along effect. One woman, when asked to attend a talk on child molestation, suddenly remembered having been fondled by a family friend while on vacation at age 9. The woman believed that she hadn’t recalled the abuse for decades. But her former husband reported that she had told him about the incident on several occasions, always in an unemotional tone.

“The purpose of my research is to reconcile both sides in the recovered-memory debate,” Geraerts says. One side holds that memories of childhood sexual abuse are blotted out of consciousness, or repressed, because they’re too traumatic and can be recalled only many years later. An opposing view contends that many recovered-memory reports are falsehoods, often inadvertently fostered by psychotherapists.

Geraerts proposes a third option: Depending on the context in which they’re retrieved, recovered memories are either false or portray actual abuse that had already been remembered and forgotten.

“These data show how people who were sexually abused as children may later recover their memories of abuse without the memories previously having been repressed,” remarks Harvard University psychologist Richard McNally.

Contrary to McNally’s view, the forgot-it-all-along effect does in fact illustrate a type of repression, one in which a person submerges overwhelming feelings linked to a traumatic memory, at least until prompted by the right cue, Stanford University psychiatrist David Spiegel suggests. The memory is there, but not fully experienced. “I’d bet that emotional-memory recovery improves recall for the content of an abusive experience,” Spiegel says.

Geraerts can’t rule out that some psychotherapy patients in her study recovered memories of actual child abuse and that some spontaneously recovered memories that were false, notes psychologist Kathy Pezdek of Claremont Graduate University in Calif. “It’s surprising that there were still big differences in the cognitive profiles of the psychotherapy and spontaneous recovery groups,” she says.

Among the volunteers Geraerts and her coworkers recruited, equal numbers reported one of four scenarios: that they had spontaneously recovered child sex- abuse memories outside of psychotherapy, that they had gradually reclaimed such memories with a psychotherapist’s assistance, that they had never forgotten having been sexually abused during childhood or that they had never been abused.

Volunteers first completed a false-memory test. They studied word lists, each containing related words such as bed, rest and tired. On subsequent trials, everyone tended to recall falsely that new but related words, such as sleep, had been on the first lists. But people who had recovered child sex abuse memories in psychotherapy made such mistakes far more often than did members of the other three groups.

Geraerts says this finding indicates that memories gradually recovered during psychotherapy should be treated cautiously, even if the data say nothing about the accuracy of any individual’s recovered memory.

Spiegel cautions that people quickly derive the gist of related words and use that knowledge to guide recall on the false-memory test. The volunteers’ mistakes reflect accurate gist knowledge, so such responses don’t correspond to false memories of abuse, in his view.

Participants in Geraerts’ study also performed a test that measured their tendency to forget what they had just remembered. Volunteers studied target words, such as palm, each accompanied by a related word, such as hand. An initial memory trial required recall of partial target words, say p**m, paired with the initial related word or another related word, such as tree. A second memory trial presented partial target words paired only with original related words. Volunteers then reported whether target words that they recalled on the second trial were words they had also recalled on the first trial.

Only the group that had spontaneously recovered memories of child sex abuse frequently forgot that they had already recalled words that had been paired with new words. Similarly, members of this group may have forgotten earlier recollections of actual abuse because those recollections occurred in different contexts, Geraerts suggests.

Because many such individuals are abused at an early age by people they know and trust, the abuse is initially recalled as weird and confusing, she posits. The same abuse gets interpreted as traumatic and sexual only after reminders in adulthood spark spontaneous recall.

Spiegel disagrees. Sexual abuse by a family member or friend is experienced as highly traumatic by young kids because it threatens their sense of safety, can’t be easily classified and is considered by children to be their own fault, he asserts.

In other studies, Geraerts’ team has found that people with spontaneously recovered memories of child sex abuse are particularly good at willing away thoughts about unpleasant personal experiences and often fail to notice when distressing thoughts pop into awareness.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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