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False memory syndrome: types and causes of this phenomenon

False memory syndrome: types and causes of this phenomenon

July 19, 2024

The false memory syndrome is characterized by the presence of false memories which can appear both spontaneously and inducedly. It is a syndrome because it refers to a set of elements that are characteristic of a certain situation, in this case, the evocation of events whose existence is only recognized by the person who evokes them.

It is not a disease or a disorder , since it has not been recognized as a clinical category by specialized international organizations. However, the false memory syndrome has emerged in important ways in scientific and legal research, as a result of different controversies and controversies generated in these contexts. We will see below some details about the characteristics and history of the false memory syndrome.

  • Related article: Types of memory: how does memory store the human brain?

False memory syndrome: what is it?

In the nineteenth century, the first public hypotheses about false memories They were made by Sigmund Freud , who proposed that a repressed foundational trauma that occurred in childhood gave rise to the psychosomatic symptoms of the adult women he attended.

Later, Sigmund Freud himself modifies his theory and speaks of such memories as a series of fantasies underlying traumatic events, and offers an interpretation for this from his theory of psychosexual development.

Later and with the development of different psychotherapeutic approaches, a large part of the clinical approaches they were based on the belief that there was repressed trauma and likely to be remembered. That is, the intention was to reveal the traumatic experiences of childhood through different techniques, ranging from hypnosis to classical individual therapy.

With the passage of time, all of the above began to be widely questioned, due to the possibility of creating a suggestive environment where the person would end up by evoking memories of experiences that never happened, or evoke them in a distorted way.

The foregoing occurred partly as a consequence of studies on the functioning of our memory. For example, cognitive sciences have told us that, far from being a kind of hard disk that stores and hides memories, our memory is more of a reconstructive and reproductive system . It is not infallible, it is constructed and modified over time and through our own narratives, interactions and experiences; with which, it is subject to errors and distortions.

False memories: types and characteristics

A false memory, or a false memory, is any memory report in which there is a partial or total difference with the facts of interest (Pinchansky, Víquez and Zeledón, 2004). In other words, these are memories that are remembered even though they have not really occurred, or that have been distorted in an important way .

They are images of the past that lack objective existence (their existence can not be corroborated by the testimonies of third parties), but that a person can evoke assuring that they have occurred as reported. By the same it is about memories that can cause an important and significant emotional experience in those who report them. Its conformation does not necessarily depend on forgetting , although it may be closely linked to this.

There are two basic types of false memories, spontaneous memories and implanted memories.

1. Spontaneous

They are generated as a result of the internal operation of the memory, but said operation can be involuntarily evoked by outside influence , for example, by means of a request from someone external to clearly report any fact.

2. Implemented

They are the result of a person's exposure to false information, which is presented in a coherent and logical way with the knowledge schemes of the person. It originates from a third informative element , which can be a comment made by someone, or for example through a suggestive question.

In this case, the third informative element is presented with the intention of provoking or forcing the recognition of a false event. That is, false implanted memories, unlike spontaneous ones, are created voluntarily by someone who is not the person who reports them.

False memories implanted They were specially studied by the American psychologist Elizabeth Loftus . The results of their investigations had an important impact on the legal procedures of the penal system.

  • Perhaps you are interested: "Elizabeth Loftus and the studies of memory: can false memories be created?"


Pinchanski, Víquez and Zeledón (2004) following Brainerd and Reyna (1995), tells us that the general mechanisms of conformation of false memories, as well as in true memories, depend mainly on the following elements:

  • The type of information that is memorized (common sense or complex information).
  • The way of memorization (oral, tactile, auditory, visual or combined).
  • The evaluation moment of memory (if it is immediate or after the event has happened).
  • The procedure to evoke recall (by recognition or by free recall).

In turn, said elements they depend on both cognitive and sociocultural mechanisms , where the rote production is conjugated with the power relations that are established in a specific context. For example, in the criminal context, the instruction of a lawyer or the public prosecutor to remember a certain event can be a trigger to create a false spontaneous memory.

Likewise, the psychiatrist Janet Boakes (1999), who is one of the pioneers in the studies on the false memory syndrome (especially in relation to the memories of child sexual abuse), suggests that this syndrome occurs to a great extent as a consequence of the suggestion produced in the psychotherapeutic context .

According to Boakes, many of the people who report recovering memories of a previous experience of sexual abuse, which can not be corroborated by elements external to the person, do so within a therapeutic process, which the author herself attributes to the influence of the practices, beliefs and influence of the professional.

Bibliographic references:

  • False Memory Syndrome Foundation (2018). Memory and reality. Retrieved August 15, 2018. Available at //
  • Pinchanski, S., Víquez, E. and Zeledón, C. (2004). Memories imposed. Med. Leg. Costa Rica, 21 (2) [Online Version]. Retrieved August 15, 2018. Available at //
  • Boakes, J. (1999). Complains of sexual misconduct. In Heaton-Armstrong, A., Shepherd, E. & Wolchover, D. Analyzing Witness Testimony. Blackstone Press: London.

What are False Memories (July 2024).

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