What is False Memory Syndrome?

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  • Written By: Adam Hill
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 06 November 2019
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False memory syndrome (FMS) is the term coined for the apparent recollection of events that did not take place, and which often occurs in psychotherapy sessions. Traumatic events, such as abuse, are those which are generally referred to in the context of false memory syndrome. Recovered memory therapy is a term used to describe the situation in which a mental health professional can lead patients to remember things that were forgotten, or perhaps altogether false. There is a degree of controversy surrounding false memory syndrome, led on one side by those who believe that such memories are in fact false, and on the other side by those who claim that people who have committed abusive acts are using FMS to discredit allegations against them.

Much of the controversy over FMS stems from the fact that the memories in question are said to be repressed and not remembered again until adulthood, long after the event takes place. In a typical example, an adult remembers an event such as childhood sexual abuse at the hand of a parent or other authority figure, and does so while in the care of a psychologist. There are accounts in existence which relate that those who have been falsely accused of abuse have in some cases suffered ill health or premature death due to the type of stress that such an accusation brings.


The effects of memories such as these coming to the surface, whether they are actual memories or not, is often the devastation of previously functional families. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) was organized in 1992 by families and professionals who wanted to study those who had suffered from the airing of such claims, whether true or false. Those who had been accused of incest in this pattern came together to find mutual support, in the same way that parents of children with disabilities do.

While it is certain that children are abused, and that it is a serious social problem, uncorroborated claims of abuse from decades past are the focus of the controversy over false memory syndrome. The nature of our memories is such that it is possible for events to be distorted or completely fabricated, without intentional deception. Unlike a video recorder that plays back events exactly as they happened, memory depends not only on our accurate initial perception, but our emotions surrounding an event, as well as other factors. Memories which a person claims to have repressed are often subject to an even greater degree of uncertainty. The frequency with which false memory syndrome occurs is unknown, which does not help in diffusing the controversy over it.


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