False memories – a call for clarity

A response to a piece in our April edition.

We write in response to Professor Chris French’s contribution to ‘Psychologists and the media’ (April 2018). It was interesting to hear of his experimental and academic work regarding anomalous experiences, and his tireless efforts to communicate the findings of these studies to a wider audience.

However, we wish to clarify some under-developed points in his article.

We recognise that article lengths can be constrained, and Professor French was ambitious about trying to communicate about two topics of interest to him – sleep paralysis and false memories.

It is the issue of false memory which we wish to address with more care. Professor French wrote about his interest in alien abduction, past lives and ‘recovered’ memories of childhood sexual abuse. He said that it ‘seems wise to adopt a level of scepticism regarding all such memories’. He later said that, ‘if only one person is steered away from getting involved in dangerous forms of psychotherapy that employ dubious techniques in an attempt to recover allegedly repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, that will be have [sic] been well worth the effort on my part.’

Firstly, we ask for care in communicating about child sexual abuse and issues of memory. Sadly, child sexual abuse is recognised to be at public health proportions (see the 2015 Children's Commissioner report) and it is thought that only one in eight children who are sexually abused are identified by professionals. So, placing child sexual abuse in the same bracket as anomalistic experiences is not helpful.

A recent report in Australia by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Goodman-Delehunty et al., 2017) provides an up-to-date, comprehensive and international overview of findings regarding child sexual abuse and impacts on memory. This is highly recommended reading and is intentionally written in an accessible style so it can reach a wide audience.

Secondly, we ask for care in communicating about therapy and therapists. Evidence suggests that the majority of cases of recovered trauma memories are not associated with any kind of therapy (Dalenberg, 1996; Elliott, 1997). The British Psychological Society represents many applied psychologists, working clinically in a variety of settings. It is important that the public understand, and can have confidence in, applied practitioners who have been trained in evidence-based therapies and who are regulated. This is easier to be clear about in public service settings. It is important that we help the public to discern ethical, evidence-based and regulated practitioners if they seek help privately.

We hope that we can help the public to make these distinctions, and not cause potential undue anxiety about coming forward to seek help.

We are sure that Professor French would not wish to be potentially misunderstood on either of the points we raise, and we hope he might find our letter helpful in this regard.

Ashley Conway PhD, AFBPsS
Private practice, London

Dr David Pilgrim AFBPsS
Visiting Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Southampton.

Dr Khadj Rouf AFBPsS
Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Oxfordshire

Dr Danny Taggart AFBPsS
University of Essex

Children’s Commissioner (2015). Protecting children from harm: A critical assessment of child sexual abuse in the family network in England and priorities for action. London: Children’s Commissioner for England.
Dalenberg, C.J. (1996). Accuracy, timing and circumstances of disclosure in therapy of recovered and continuous memories of recovered and continuous memories of abuse. Journal of Psychiatry & Law, 24, 229–275.
Elliott, D.M. (1997). Traumatic events: Prevalence and delayed recall in the general population. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65(5), 811–820.
Goodman-Delahunty, J., Nolan, M.A. and van Gijn-Grosvenor, E.L. (2017). Empirical Guidance on the Effects of Child Sexual Abuse on Memory and Complainants’ Evidence. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Sydney.

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