I was reminded of the “memory wars” of the 1990s yesterday when listening to an episode of Marc Maron’s popular WTF podcast. The guest, comedian Tom Arnold, told Maron about his traumatic childhood, which included an alcoholic mother who abandoned him and a neighbor who molested him. Arnold said he came to terms with the trauma through therapy, which culminated in him confronting the neighbor in person. The man denied it, apparently yelling at Arnold that his memories were wrong. It was a heartbreaking story, and obvious from Arnold’s telling that he deeply believes his memories are not at all wrong.
As these accusations mounted, several high-profile psychology researchers began speaking out against the idea of repressed memories. In a 1993 article in American Psychologist, memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus pointed out that little if any scientific evidence supported the idea of repressed memories: Nobody knew how commonly traumatized people repress memories, or how accurate the memories are, or how juries are likely to react to them. And considering the lawsuits waged against alleged abusers, Loftus found this lack of evidence disturbing. “When we move from the privacy of the therapy session, in which the client’s reality may be the only reality that is important, into the courtroom, in which there can be but a single reality, then we as citizens in a democratic society are entitled to more solid evidence,” she wrote.
This debate between practicing therapists and research psychologists became known as the memory wars. Over time, scientific criticisms by Loftus and others got more attention in the press, and some accusers recanted their stories. Loftus’s own research helped drive the increased skepticism. As Saletan’s article describes in depth, Loftus’s studies showed just how easily false memories can be implanted by a trusted source.
Read the whole story: National Geographic