The Scientifically Based Opinion about "Recovered" or Dissociated Memories

A document published on the 12th of October, 2014 entitled “Opinion Regarding the Scientific Standing of Repressed and Reconstructed Memories,” signed by forty-seven prominent academics, has been widely circulated in the press as support for barring recovered memories of childhood abuse as evidence admissible in Israeli courts.

Contrary to the views expressed in that statement, we support the Court’s decision to admit the memories into evidence and hold that such ‘recovered’ memories are no more but no less reliable than other forms of memory retrieval, and should be relied upon in reaching decisions in court using the same evaluative tools employed to assess other forms of eyewitness testimony.

The statement refers to “serious dispute amongst the community of psychological scientists” that repressed memories for trauma can ever occur. Two broad arguments are offered. First, they claim that credible research shows that people can falsely believe in events that have never occurred, and therefore an alternative explanation for a given recovered memory may exist. Second, they assert that no litmus test yet exists that can guarantee that a specific recovered memory is true. We contend that both continuously recalled as well as recovered memories of alleged childhood sexual abuse deserve to be evaluated in a court of law based on a more careful reading of current research.

As academic and clinical specialists in the field of trauma, we urge that the reader to note carefully what the statement does NOT say. The document does NOT state that researchers have gathered continuous and recovered memories of alleged childhood sexual abuse, examined them for evidence of truth and falsity, and determined that the latter as a class are less credible than the former. Such comparative research does exist, but the virtually universal finding is that recovered memories of abuse are no less accurate (and no more accurate) than are continuous memories. Continuous memories AND recovered memories may be true or false, or a mixture of accurate and confabulated information. No reasonable scholar would deny this.

Research projects investigating the accuracy of recovered memories have taken many forms. Some researchers interview alleged perpetrators or recovered memory victims, finding convincing evidence for a subsample of memories (including confession by the accused individual). Another study design involves recontacting children whose trauma had been documented in prior research studies or clinical records decades before. Results of these studies show that some of these now-adult individuals do not recall the prior documented trauma, and others report that they had periods of time when they did not recall these documented traumas, but subsequently recalled them.

On the other hand, clever experimental paradigms have been designed to press individuals to recall “lost memories” that have been created by the experimenters or gathered from the research participants’ relatives. This type of research does find that a minority of people will claim to recall pieces of a relatively benign memory that the researcher has created from whole cloth. However, subjects will also recall details from the true memories that the researchers have gathered from the individual’s relatives, and which the subjects report that they had forgotten. The final result: evidence that memory is fallible and evidence that memories can be lost and found again.

It is true that there is no objective method to determine that the recovered memory is true before it is subjected to the examination of the court. The Opinion does NOT mention that the same is true of continuous memory. We would argue that the best evidence in recovered memory cases has taken exactly the same forms as it has in continuous memory cases that come to light after a period of time -- witnesses to the act, biological evidence, contemporaneous statements, and confessions in the strongest cases, and strong circumstantial evidence that convince the trier of fact in the rest.

Finally, the authors of the Opinion imply, but do not state, that “believers that repressed-reconstructed memory is possible” are a minority among relevant scholars. In fact, since the 1990’s, “false memory syndrome” has been unsuccessfully championed again and again as an addition to the two most widely accepted compendiums of psychological and psychiatric diagnoses. It remains too controversial due to lack of sufficient scientific evidence to support inclusion. During this same period, the evidence for “repressed memory of trauma,” more scientifically labeled “Dissociative Amnesia,” has stood up to repeated examinations. The diagnosis of dissociative amnesia remains in place in the diagnostic manuals. 

The authors of the Opinion are correct that the controversy generated in the early 1990’s, when recovered memory evidence first entered the courtroom, brought to public awareness two warring factions. One group, largely trauma therapists, believed that recovered memories held a special truth and should not be questioned. Another group, largely nonclinical researchers, believed that no recovered memories were reliable. The largest group, consisting of most trauma researchers, many cognitive and biological researchers, and a large number of clinicians, believed that both false memories and recovered memories could occur. Studies since the First World War have repeatedly documented dissociative amnesia for combat in a subgroup of soldiers. Some of these soldiers were documented to later recall the dissociated information. On the other hand, a small minority of these soldiers was found to have confabulated or lied about these types of experiences.

The upswing in research and discussion from 1990 to the early 2000’s left both extreme groups in disrepute. Researchers leaning toward belief and disbelief met in Port de Bourgenay, France in 1996, sponsored by NATO, and discussed the issue for eleven days, contributing to resolution. By the end of this period, dozens of major psychological organizations had made public statements condemning both extremes, and surveys of both clinicians and academicians found few remaining followers of either extreme view. Representatives from cognitive psychology and clinical trauma psychology wrote conciliatory pieces in the literature, and the controversy died.

In the last twenty-five years since the explosion and resolution of this controversy, much more has been learned about dissociation and dissociative amnesia. Dissociation is more prominently, rather than less prominently featured in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5), including a new Dissociative Sub-Type of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The latter has been documented in many studies of individuals with PTSD. Indeed, in the DSM-5, dissociative amnesia for trauma remains a criterion symptom for the diagnosis of both PTSD and Acute Stress Disorder.

Cognitive researchers have more recently contributed evidence that all memory, not simply recovered memory, is reconstructive and should be examined closely. However, in contrast to beliefs expressed in the earlier Opinion, no evidence has emerged that lays a foundation to declare that recovered memories of trauma are a special class of memories that do not deserve fair and just evaluation in a court of law.

Sincerely,

  1. ד״ר גילי אופיר, מרכז לטם לטיפול בטראומה מינית, בית חולים איכילוב
  2. ד״ר אודי אורן, נשיא EMDR Europe
  3. ד״ר רננה איתן, מנהלת מרפאה נוירופסיכיאטרית, בית חולים הדסה עין כרם
  4. ד״ר אודי בונשטיין, פסיכולוג קליני ראשי, בי״ח נהריה, יו״ר האגודה הישראלית להיפנוזה
  5. ד״ר שירי בן-נאים, מרפאה פסיכיאטרית, הדסה עין כרם
  6. ד״ר אהובה בני, מנהלת השירות הפסיכיאטרי, מרכז רפואי בני ציון, חיפה
  7. פרופ׳ דני ברום, האוניברסיטה העברית
  8. ד״ר נועה בר חיים, פסיכיאטרית, מרכז תמר
  9. ד"ר דליה ברנדס, יחידה לטיפול בטראומה נפשית אקוטית, בית חולים איכילוב
  10. ד״ר ענבל ברנר, בית חולים שלוותה
  11. ד״ר אורנה גורלניק, אוניברסיטת ניו יורק
  12. ד״ר שרון גיל, אוניברסיטת חיפה
  13. פרופ׳ קרני גינזבורג, אוניברסיטת תל אביב
  14. ד״ר הילה הרמלין קוטנר, פסיכולוגית קלינית בכירה
  15. ד״ר אפי זיו, אוניברסיטת תל אביב
  16. ד״ר כרמית כץ, אוניברסיטת תל אביב
  17. ד״ר יפעת כהן, פסיכיאטרית, מיסדת/מנהלת שותפה, מכון אופק לטיפול דיאלקטי-התנהגותי
  18. פרופ׳ מולי להד, מכללת תל-חי
  19. ד״ר אופיר לוי, המרכז האקדמי רופין, אוניברסיטת תל אביב
  20. ד״ר דוד ליבה, מנהל מחלקה, בית החולים מזרע
  21. ד״ר ערן לייטנר, מרכז לטם לטיפול בטראומה מינית, בית חולים איכילוב
  22. ד״ר עופר מאורר, בית הספר החדש לפסיכותרפיה
  23. ד״ר מיה מוכמל, אוניברסיטת חיפה
  24. ד״ר אביגיל מור, המכללה האקדמית תל חי
  25. ד״ר פטריסיה סיפריס, מנהלת מחלקה, מרכז רפואי לב השרון
  26. ד״ר נמרוד פיק, פסיכיאטר, המרכז לבריאות הנפש באר יעקב
  27. פרופ' רות פת-הורנצ'יק, האוניברסיטה העברית והמרכז הישראלי לטיפול בפסיכוטראומה
  28. ד״ר חנה צור, האוניברסיטה העברית
  29. ד״ר אילן קוץ, פסיכיאטר
  30. פרופ׳ שאול שרייבר, מנהל המערך הפסיכיאטרי, בית חולים איכילוב
  31. ד״ר דניאלה שבאר-שפירא, אוניברסיטת תל אביב
  32. Prof. Judie Alpert, Founder of Division of Trauma Psychology of the American Psychological Association, New York University, USA
  33. Prof. Judith Armstrong, University of Southern California, USA
  34. Dr. Kathryn Becker-Blease, Oregon State University, USA
  35. Dr. Suzette Boon, Supervisor, Trauma Center, Zeist, The Netherlands
  36. Prof. Bethany L. Brand, Towson University, USA
  37. Prof. Stephen E. Braude, Emeritus Professor, University of Maryland Baltimore County, USA
  38. Prof. John Briere, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, USA
  39. Prof. Daniel P. Brown, Harvard Medical School, USA
  40. Dr. Laura S. Brown, Past President, Trauma Division, American Psychological Association, USA
  41. Prof. Lisa D. Butler, University at Buffalo, USA
  42. Prof. Etzel Cardeña, Lund University, Sweden
  43. Prof. Ross Cheit, Brown University, USA
  44. Dr. Richard A. Chefetz, Distinguished Visiting Lecturer, William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis & Psychology, New York City, USA
  45. Prof. Jim Chu, Harvard Medical School, USA
  46. Prof. Catherine C. Classen, University of Toronto, Canada
  47. Dr. Christine A. Courtois, Washington, DC, USA
  48. Prof. Carlos A. Cuevas, Northeastern University, USA
  49. Prof. Constance J. Dalenberg (Distinguished), California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University, USA
  50. Prof. Martin Dorahy, University of Canterbury, New Zealand
  51. Prof. Amber N. Douglas, Mount Holyoke College, USA
  52. Dr. Nel Draijer, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  53. Prof. Helena Espirito Santo, Instituto Miguel Torga, Portugal
  54. Prof. Charles F. Figley, Distinguished Chair in Disaster Mental Health at Tulane University and School of Social Work Professor and Associate Dean for Research, USA
  55. Dr. Janina Fisher, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, USA
  56. Prof. Brad Foote, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University, USA
  57. Prof. Steven Frankel, University of Southern California, USA
  58. Prof. Jennifer J. Freyd, University of Oregon, USA; Editor, Journal of Trauma and Dissociation
  59. Prof. Silke Birgitta Gahleitner, Donau-Universität Krems, Austria
  60. Dr. Richard B. Gartner, Founding Director of Sexual Abuse Service, William Alanson White Institute for Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology, New York, USA
  61. Prof. David H. Gleaves, University of South Australia, Australia
  62. Prof. Steven N. Gold, Nova Southeastern University, USA, Editor, Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy
  63. Dr. Anabel Gonzalez, University Hospital of A Coruña, Spain
  64. Prof. Jean M. Goodwin, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, USA
  65. Prof. Thomas G. Gutheil, Harvard Medical School, USA
  66. Dr. Christine Hatchard, Monmouth University, USA
  67. Prof. Janna A. Henning, Adler School of Professional Psychology, USA
  68. Prof. Judith L. Herman, Harvard Medical School, USA
  69. Dr. Jim Hopper, Harvard Medical School, USA
  70. Prof. Elizabeth Howell, New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy & Psychoanalysis
  71. Prof. Sheldon Itzkowitz, New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy & Psychoanalysis
  72. Prof. Philip Kinsler, Geisel School of Medicine, Darthmouth, USA
  73. Prof. Richard Kluft, Temple University School of Medicine, USA
  74. Prof. Christa Krüger, University of Pretoria, South Africa
  75. Prof. Marilyn Korzewkwa, McMaster University, Canada
  76. Prof. Ruth Lanius, University of Western Ontario, Canada
  77. Prof. Richard J. Loewenstein, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, USA
  78. Dr. Giovanni Liotti, MD, Post- graduate School of Clinical Psychology, Università Pontificia Salesiana, Rome, Italy.
  79. Prof. Alexander McFarlane, University of Adelaide, Australia
  80. Prof. Warwick Middleton, University of Queensland, Australia
  81. Prof. Andrew Moskowitz, Aarhus University, Denmark
  82. Dr. Ellert R.S. Nijenhuis, psychotraumatology researcherDepartment of Psychiatry, Assen, The Netherlands
  83. Dr. Pat Ogden, Founder/Director, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, USA
  84. Dr. John A. O’Neil, McGill University, Canada
  85. Dr. Ken Pope, researcher, former chair of ethics committees, American Psychological Association and American Board of Professional Psychology, USA
  86. Dr. Luise Reddemann, University of Klagenfurt, Austria
  87. Prof. Margo Rivera, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada
  88. Dr. Colin A. Ross, The Collin Ross Institute, USA
  89. Dr. Anca Sabau, Child psychiatrist, ESTD executive board member, Romania
  90. Prof. Vedat Şar, Emeritus, Istanbul University Faculty of Medicine, Turkey
  91. Prof. Ingo Schäfer, University Medical Center Hamburg, Germany
  92. Prof. Alan W. Scheflin , Professor of Law Emeritus, Santa Clara University, USA
  93. Dr. Yolanda Schlumpf, University of Zurich, Psychological Institute, Division of Neuropsychology, Switzerland
  94. Dr. Joyanna Silberg, Executive Vice-President, Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence, USA
  95. Prof. Tom L. Smith, University of California, San Diego, USA
  96. Prof. David Spiegel, Stanford University School of Medicine, USA
  97. Prof. Helle Spindler, Aarhus University, Denmark
  98. Dr. Pam Stavropoulos, Head of Research and Clinical Practice Adults Surviving Child Abuse, Australia
  99. Kathy Steele, MN, CS, Adjunct Faculty, Emory University School of Nursing, USA
  100. Prof. Paula Thomson, California State University, USA
  101. Prof. Onno van der Hart, Emeritus, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
  102. Dr. Amelia van der Merwe, Stellenbosch University, South Africa
  103. Prof. HGJM Eric Vermetten, Leiden University Medical Center, The Netherlands
  104. Prof. Lenore E. Walker, Professor, Nova Southeastern University, Center for Psychological Studies, USA
  105. Dr. Fran S. Waters, DCSW, LMSW, LMFT, Former ISSTD president, USA
  106. Prof. Rachel Yehuda, Director, Traumatic Stress Studies Division, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, NY, USA
  107. Prof. Dr. Sahika Yuksel, Emeritus, Istanbul University Medical School, Turkey

 

December 27, 2014