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Can Recovered Memory Therapy Be Trusted?
Do you have horrific childhood memories locked within? Some therapists think you must have – that’s why you became an addict. And using a technique known as Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT), they want to retrieve those memories and use them to treat your former habit. RMT had its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s but some therapists still use it today. However, critics say the memories it recovers can’t be trusted because they’ve been retrieved through suggestion and fabrication.
What is RMT?
RMT is built on the idea that adults with psychological problems such as addiction, depression and weight fluctuations were likely abused (probably sexually) in their childhood. But they’ve repressed the memories of that abuse. However, under therapy, the memories may be retrieved and used to treat the associated disorder. And since the memories are reenacted exactly as they happened, they are 100 percent accurate, the theory goes.
RMT therapists use the following suggestive techniques to reconstruct the lost memories.
- guided imaginary trips
- dream analysis
- journeys back into early childhood
The first time a client meets the RMT therapist, he may reveal his ability to recall abuse memories – either continuously or spontaneously – or he may reveal that he has no abuse memories whatsoever. However, the suggestive techniques are consistently applied until a clearer and more consolidated picture of repeated (mainly sexual) abuse emerges for all clients.
The Dangers of RMT
The biggest criticism of RMT is its ability to reconstruct abuse events that never took place, via its suggestive techniques. Consequently, in the 80s and 90s, this ‘evidence’ was used to imprison many parents for alleged child sexual abuse. Some accusers later recanted or attempted suicide when they came to suspect that the memories were untrue and fabricated during therapy. Therapists have also been found guilty of implanting untrue memories. Laboratory studies have shown that people may initially deny suggested events but the more they are probed, the more they incorporate and expand the memories.
In a study of three sets of people with differing recollections of childhood sexual abuse, researchers were able to corroborate only 45 percent of stories of those who continuously recalled the abuse, 37 percent of stories of those who retrieved their memories spontaneously and away from therapy and absolutely none for those who recovered memories through therapy. This suggests that memories recovered only in therapy are less believable than those recovered in other ways. But the fact that the other methods had low corroboration rates makes them equally questionable.
In fact, scientists say that while severely traumatized people don’t forget the events surrounding the trauma, all memories become obscure or change with time, so they cannot be relived exactly as they originally happened. The inaccuracy may be the result of factors such as amount of time lapsed, level of trauma involved, and altered perceptions of the event due to new experiences and information.
A further criticism of RMT is that there is no scientific evidence to prove its claim that childhood sexual abuse necessarily leads to psychological problems in adulthood. Nor is there enough evidence that when supposedly repressed memories of abuse are recovered, the client’s psychological health improves dramatically.
Guidelines for RMT Therapists
Concerned by the incidences of false memory retrieval, some professional bodies have mandated that their therapists adopt procedures such as these when treating clients who report abuse memories:
- They should not automatically link retrieved memories to sexual abuse
- They should not perceive all retrieved memories as accurate
- They should not use suggestive techniques to influence existing memories
- They should not seek to implant memories the client has no present knowledge of
It seems that clients should proceed with caution when using RMT for their continually remembered or spontaneous memories of abuse. But they should steer clear when they have absolutely no recollection of abuse.
Pope, H.G. Repressed memory therapy (trauma-search therapy). Retrieved from http://skepdic.com/repress.html
Recovered memory therapy. Retrieved from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/recovered-memory-therapy
Recovered memory therapy: Recovered trauma memories and hypnosis. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/recovered-trauma-memories-and-hypnosis/
Repressed memory and recovered memory therapy (RMT). Retrieved from http://www.caic.org.au/fms-sra/rmt.htm
The myths of memory repression and recovery. Retrieved from http://www.stopbadtherapy.com/myths/repress.shtml
Benhilda Chanetsa has a BA Honors degree in History and Sociology and a teaching diploma, both from the University of London. She was a high school teacher for 11 years, and chief subeditor at a weekly newspaper for four years. She’s been a freelance lifestyle writer for the past 10 years and has two nonfiction e-books published on Amazon. The books are on overcoming negative thinking and surviving abusive relationships.