Fake and forged memories

Have you ever flown in a hot air balloon? No. And yet, by means of some smart subterfuges or stratagems, a skilled experimenter might succeed in convincing you that the opposite is true. In the kingdom of false memories, it seems that emotion is the queen, as it has been recently shown in a study by ULg psychologists published in the American Psychological Association’s journal, Emotion.

Since the 1990s and the blooming of the constructivist approach of memory, it is accepted that remembering a piece of information previously encoded in memory does not consist of extracting it from a ‘box’ where it was ‘sleeping.’ This was the end of the “computer metaphor” in which our memories were considered as literal and passive recordings of our experiences. On the contrary, remembering requires a work of reconstruction on the basis of our knowledge, the meaning that we have attributed to the lived experience, the details effectively perceived, but also on the basis of other pieces of information bestowed after the event. The advantage of this type of functioning is that it is more economical than a literal recording of the whole of the experiences we might have over the course of our lives. In addition it ensures a form of flexibility which allows an individual to be better adapted and to maintain a certain consistency within his or her identity.

False memories mecanism

Sometimes, however, our memory processes fail and produce false memories. This question was for a long time left in the shadows by researchers in psychology, who rather focused on memory in terms of performance. False memories only attracted their attention quite recently, precisely at the time constructivist concepts emerged. But the most determining element in the interest sparked by this problematic was incontestably a troubling phenomenon which today is known as the ‘war of memories.’ What does it concern? A sudden ‘epidemic’ of rediscovered memories of sexual abuse which affected and sometimes broke up thousands of families in the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

In a collective work published by Solal Publishers(1), Serge Brédart, a Professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Liège, makes reference to the typical scenario of these episodes, as described by the American psychologist Daniel Schacter, of the University of Harvard: ‘A young adult, usually a woman, remembers over the course of psychotherapy memories of sexual abuse forgotten for a long time and committed by a parent or somebody close to the family, or a figure of some authority, such as a teacher or a priest. When they were confronted with these accusations the accused generally denied them. Often the families became divided, its members taking the side of one party or another. In several cases the affair left the private sphere for the public one of a court of justice.’

(1) Souvenirs récupérés, souvenirs oubliés et false memories, edited by Serge Brédart and Martial Van der Linden, Solal publishers, 2004.

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