Memory and Trauma: The Power of Suggestion

CHARISSA ILUORE

Manufactured memoriesBeth Rutherford, a nurses’ assistant living in Missouri, was so troubled by work-related insomnia that she sought the help of a church counselor. In one session with her therapist, Beth admitted to having a dream about being brutally raped by her father. Though she did not remember any abuse actually occurring, Beth was made to recall the dream over and over again, until something strange happened. Suddenly, she started to uncover vivid memories of childhood rape. As a result, her father, the reverend of the church, was fired from his position and ostracized by the community. He continually proclaimed his innocence—innocence that was supported by the fact that he had undergone a vasectomy when Beth was just four years old. But how could Beth have clearly recalled such traumatizing events only to be proved utterly wrong? The suggestive therapy she had received at the church made Beth rediscover “repressed memories” of gruesome parental abuse, even though nothing of the kind had ever occurred. These figments of the imagination are far from trivial; they can destroy the lives of people like Beth and her father and pose a grave danger to our witness testimony-based judicial system.

Such false memories emerge, in part, due to the way our brain interprets and consolidates our past, present, and future. Our minds are not like video cameras, filming all we see and hear, only to render a flawless recording when we attempt to dredge up our memories. Instead, our mind develops memory by imposing meaning and context on events, extracting the general gist of our experiences and storing the contents across a wide network of neurons. Thus, the way in which memory is constructed makes it highly susceptible to distortion and suggestion.

False memory expert Dr. Elizabeth Loftus has spent decades conducting research on the frailty of our recollections. “We began to see hundreds of cases where people were accusing others based on claims of repressed memory,” Loftus told New Scientist News. Such repressed memories are often the result of leading therapy and intense psychological interrogation. Because patients often visit psychologists with symptoms of depression or dysfunction, without knowing the root cause, therapists may diagnose their patients by asking leading questions, “Were you abused as a child?” and “Did you witness something traumatic in the past?” Some psychologists even use hypnosis to uncover such information.

Memory enables us to relive our most cherished experiences, but it can also mislead, traumatize, and destroy.

Since our memories are so malleable, however, false information can easily be implanted into our minds and converted into an actual remembrance. By repeatedly asking patients to recall possible past traumas—and by suggesting what might have happened in their patients’ pasts—therapists can actually construct “repressed memories” in their clients. The clients subconsciously take the therapist’s version of events and incorporate it into reality, as a way to explain their psychological troubles.

Extraordinary cases, like Beth Rutherford’s, can ruin the lives of both the victims and their families. On a larger scale, “memory misattributions” have dramatic implications for our society’s legal system. Eyewitness testimony is frequently the most compelling factor in court decisions—and often the least reliable. Up to 72% of post-conviction DNA exoneration cases were precipitated by witness’ claims that were based on false perceptions or memory. The most likely cause of this phenomenon is that witnesses, during the process of police interrogation, are pressed extensively on details they cannot exactly recall. In effect, the interrogators suggest a plausible scenario and the witness incorporates that scenario into memory—a repressed memory. Thus, the prevalence and unreliability of eyewitness testimony presents a large obstacle to the fair administration of justice in the legal system by sending innocent citizens to prison.

Memory enables us to relive our most cherished experiences, but it can also mislead, traumatize, and destroy. As Beth Rutherford’s case shows, false recollections are not just harmless musings, limited to the therapist’s armchair and the family photo album. And that is a scary thought: for, if we cannot trust our own memories, what exactly can we trust?

Charissa Iluore is a Brevia staff writer. She can be reached at ciluore@college.harvard.edu.