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What is childhood trauma?


Childhood trauma and memory

"Recovered" memories is the descriptor given to recall of traumatic events, typically but not exclusively, of child sexual abuse, by adults who have exhibited little or no previous awareness of such experiences. While the term `repressed’ memory is sometimes used as a synonym, this is problematic because current research is shedding increased light on the differences between repression and dissociation (Howell & Itzkowitz, 2016). Reference to `repressed’ memory is also somewhat pejorative in evoking the so-called `false memory’ phenomenon of the 1990s (see below). Current clinical and neuroscientific research into the nature of memory has advanced considerably since the end of the last century; arguably the term `delayed onset memory recall’ is now preferable for this reason.

Also related to delayed onset or recovered memory is the term "traumatic amnesia". The phenomenon of traumatic amnesia has been noted in a variety of populations over the last century, including war veterans, Holocaust survivors, and survivors of natural disasters. By the mid-1980s, a significant body of research indicated that many adult survivors of child sexual abuse also suffer from traumatic amnesia. While some people always remember having been abused, others do not remember anything about their experiences for many years, whilst others recall some but not all of the details of their abuse.

Current research upholds that memory is not unitary but comprised of networks or subsystems and that different types of memory (namely explicit, conscious and implicit, largely non-conscious) are stored in different parts of the brain. Traumatic memory is implicit, and manifests somatically and via behavioural re-enactments rather than words (as the book titles The Body Remembers and The Body Keeps the Score convey). Memory too overwhelming (traumatic) to be assimilated by the central nervous system arises as `fragmented splinters of inchoate and indigestible sensations, emotions, images, smells, tastes, thoughts’ (Levine, 2015:7). It thus functions quite differently from conscious, explicit, memory.

Traumatic amnesia was long regarded as a major obstacle to prosecution of child sexual abuse. Prior to the 1980s, survivors were often unable to pursue civil charges as the crime had occurred so long previously that they were not permitted to sue by law. In criminal cases, defendants often claimed that adult survivors were `unreliable witnesses’ because they had not reported the abuse until years or decades later.

Increased understanding of the nature, types and functions of memory is challenging this perception. By the late 1980s, lawyers argued that the limitation period (or the "statute of limitations") for child sex offenses should be extended in cases where a complainant has suffered from traumatic amnesia. Growing insight into the neurological processes of memory types, and the dynamics of recovered memory, requires the law and justice systems to reflect these enhanced understandings. “Numerous cases in various parts of the world have demonstrated that recovered memories have been verified and corroborated by independent evidence or admissions of guilt by perpetrators or findings of guilt by courts”.

So, too, does acknowledgement of the protective purposes served by (conscious) `forgetting’ of trauma, which, in the case of childhood trauma, preserves the attachment bond to caregivers on which children’s survival depends (Freyd & Birrell, 2013).

In the contemporary period, the `false’ vs `recovered’ memory debate has largely been replaced by that between the contrasting paradigms of the `Fantasy’ vs `Trauma’ models of dissociation. The Trauma Model contends that Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) `is etiologically related to chronic neglect and physical and/or sexual abuse’, while the Fantasy Model (also known as the sociocognitive or iatrogenic model) claims that DID can be simulated and is the product of `high suggestibility, fantasy proneness, and sociocultural influences’ (Vissia, Giesen et al, 2016:111). In the first study to jointly test these two models empirically with DID participants, the DID group was found not to be more fantasy-prone or to generate more false memories - `Evidence consistently supported the Trauma Model of DID and challenges the core hypothesis of the Fantasy Model’ (Vissia, Giesen et al, ibid: 111; also Dalenberg et al, 2012).

For helpful references regarding this and related topics (including `The Accuracy of Recovered Memories’, `Delayed Recall of Trauma vs `False Memories’, and `Psychology Textbooks’ Coverage of Traumatic Amnesia and `Recovered’ Memory’, see Bethany Brand

For further information, please see the Blue Knot Foundations Fact Sheet on 'Memory'.

Please also see article (14-10-17) from the Weekend Australian 'Reporting revives bad memories of contentious theories' by Warwick Middleton, Martin Dorahy & Michael Salter. 

False Memories

What is “False Memory Syndrome”?

Debate about "recovered memories" and "false memories" dominated media coverage of child abuse for much of the 1990s. Proponents of the "false memory" position argued that there was no evidence for traumatic amnesia, and that "recovered memories" of sexual abuse were unreliable, often the product of overly zealous therapists, and of hysterical, malicious or confabulating women. As noted above (`Recovered Memories and Traumatic Amnesia’) research into the nature of memory has become increasingly sophisticated since the 1990s.It affirms both the existence of traumatic amnesia and the potential legitimacy of `recovered memories’ (i.e, delayed onset memory recall)..Enhanced understanding of the complexity of memory (i.e. that it is not unitary but rather involves neural networks in which different types of memory are stored in different parts of the brain) has taken some of the heat out of the debates of the 1990s which occurred prior to availability of this more recent research.

To the extent that updated research into the nature of memory is not widely disseminated, there remains risk, however, that the polarised and over simplified perspectives of the 1990s continue to circulate. For this reason, it is important to revisit the nature of these debates through the lens of the increased knowledge about memory which is now available, lest the mistakes and misperceptions of the past continue to be reproduced. 

In the last decade of the previous century, the concept of “False Memory Syndrome” (FMS) was created to explain delayed memories of sexual abuse which led to litigation. Parents accused of sexual abuse sought defence lawyers and psychological experts to help defend against these claims. While the definition of this syndrome was vague, it has been described by Kihlstrom (1997) as the outgrowth of “a condition in which a person's identity and interpersonal relationships are centered around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes."

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) also mounted a critique of so-called “Recovered Memory Therapy”. It claimed that recovered memory is likely to be false, and is generally the product of therapist suggestion. The vehicle by which this was held to occur was practice of “Recovered Memory Therapy”. There is no psychological therapy of this name; the term was invented by the Foundation in 1992 to describe any form of therapy in which a client might disclose memories of sexual abuse in childhood. Interestingly, a review of 30 former patients who sued their therapists for implanting false memories found that none of the cases involved therapy that could be characterised as “recovered memory therapy” e.g. a single-minded focus on recovering memories, or a client being misled in treatment (Scheflin and Brown,1999). Lindsay and Read (1994) found that “there is little reason to fear that a few suggestive questions will lead psychotherapy clients to conjure up vivid and compelling illusory memories of childhood sexual abuse”. A substantial proportion of people who recover memories do so without ever having participated in therapy at all.

Moreover, and contrary to claims that recovered memories are primarily the result of suggestive psychotherapy, most recovery of traumatic memories have been found to occur outside of therapy (Wlisnack et al, 2002). In their study less than 2% of women with delayed recall reported remembering the abuse with the help of a therapist or other professional person. 

Current research on memory confirms that memory can be unreliable. Neither explicit (i.e. conscious, `autobiographical’, `declarative’) memory nor implicit (i.e. largely non-conscious, somatic, procedural) memory is infallible.

This means that the claim that recovered (implicit) memories are inherently less reliable than explicit, conscious memories is inaccurate:

`Memories that are recovered – those that were forgotten and subsequently recalled- can often be corroborated and are no more likely to be confabulated than are continuous memories’ 
(Chu, 2011, p.80 (citing ‘(Dalenberg, 1996; Kluft, 1995; Lewis, Yeager, Swiza, Pincus & Lewis, 1997); also Dalenberg et al, 2012).

In 2007 researchers, seeking external corroboration, concluded that abuse memories that are spontaneously recovered may indeed be as accurate as memories that have persisted since the time the incident took place (Geraerts et al., 2007).

Understanding of the nature of traumatic memory, how it differs from explicit, conscious memory recall, and the role of situational cues to the eliciting of memory (`triggers’) is also essential for informed discussion of the accuracy of memory recall While `false memories’ can and do occur, research upholds that this applies to explicit, conscious memory as well as to delayed onset recall (`recovered’) memories (Brand & McEwen, 2014). Also note that the validity of "False Memory Syndrome" has not been established. Whitfield (2001) and Brown (2001) provide a clear summary of the manner in which accused child abusers attempt to defend themselves in court using “false memory” arguments and other defences.


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