National Post

Monday, December 28, 1998

Study finds that memories from our childhood are not always accurate

Carol Milstone Ph.D.
National Post

In a remarkable new study on the suggestive powers of psychotherapy, University of British Columbia psychologists demonstrated just how easy it is to mess with childhood memories. The 77 participants in this experiment attended three "therapy" style interviews on the pretext of learning about "how well people recall emotional events from childhood." Before these interviews each of the participants' parents were contacted by the researchers to obtain the details of a significant, negative emotional event which was experienced by their child between four and 10 years of age. The parents were also instructed not to discuss these events with their children during the course of the study. During the subsequent interviews with participants, each subject was asked to recall two separate childhood events -- the event previously described by their parents and another event which was fabricated by the researchers (yet confirmed by the parents to have not happened). Both events were introduced to the participants as "true" events. To prompt memories of both childhood events (genuine and false) the therapists supplied some basic details about the events (location, who was present, etc.) and then employed the most common therapy techniques for delving into one's childhood: suggestive support (Many people can't recall certain childhood events at first because they haven't thought about them for a long time. For the next few moments, try hard to get the memory back, etc.) and guided imagery to reinstate the context (picture yourself in [the location], imagine what it looked like and felt like to be there).For the false childhood events, 43 participants (56%) "remembered" them as true, either in shaky detail or as completely recreated in their memory. Lead researcher Stephen Porter (now at Dalhousie University) points to earlier research which identified 71% of psychotherapists as using suggestive techniques such as guided imagery with their clients, and many are keen to recover repressed memories of abuse with these techniques. From the results of this new study, Porter recommends to such therapists that "the techniques utilized in this study such as guided imagery be used only with utmost caution."

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