The Trauma That Never Was
Sometimes psychotherapy uncovers forgotten trauma. But because our memory is not an exact representation of what happened, such memories can be deceptive.
In the 1980s and 1990s, an unusually large number of adult patients reported to their therapist that they had been sexually abused or suffered some other type of trauma in their childhood. Quite a few had never been aware of having had these terrible experiences. Psychologists concluded they must have temporarily repressed the memories. Suggestive techniques such as hypnosis or dream interpretation were often used in therapy to retrieve the lost images.
Soon after, however, a series of experiments cast doubt on the fact that recovered memories are always based on true events. In a famous study, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus asked adult subjects about their memories of four childhood events. One thing, however, never happened: It was about how the participants got temporarily lost at the age of five, for example in a shopping mall. Using suggestive questioning techniques, Loftus tricked a quarter of them into believing they actually had this experience…