Written by Jessica Van Horssen
Therapy. Who hasn’t been to a therapist nowadays? It seems like therapy is the new church. We are looking for answers to our painful feelings, our limiting beliefs, and our insecurities to the point that we go desperately looking for answers. Sometimes in the wrong places.
When there is such a high demand, it is only natural that more therapists and therapies pop up. Apart from conventional psychotherapy, there are many alternatives such as hypnotherapy, regression therapy, ayahuasca therapy, and so on.
Many of those therapies claim that in order to become a person free of trauma and pain, one has to live through those same experiences again with the help of a therapist. After having experienced them consciously again, you are supposedly finally ready to let them go and become healed and whole. While I’m not against any of those therapies per se, I would like to point out the dangers of so-called memory retrieval.
This might work for some, but I have also seen many people get stuck in a neverending story of healing their traumas. People who have spent over a decade working through their traumas. And while they are so fixated on healing, they are actually stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy because now they only live for their traumas. So, under the motto of healing childhood traumas, many people become entangled with a therapist, continuously reliving their traumas and growing dependent on their healing.
Maybe they experience a heartfelt connection with that therapist, but a breakthrough never happens.
How do you know if most of the memories you keep working on aren’t false? After all, the more you repeat or talk about something, the less your memory of the experience resembles the original event. Especially if you’ve been talking about it for years!
Studies have shown that it is quite simple to plant a false memory in someone’s head. Psychologist Julia Shaw conducted an experiment in which she asked the parents of her participants about an event from the participant’s childhood, then told the participants about the event, but made something up about it too. With suggestive remarks, she was able to make the participants believe that those things had actually happened.
We can conclude that it is quite easy to create false memories. It’s unsettling to think that therapists can have such a profound power.
In the game telephone, one person must come up with a sentence and whisper it in the next person’s ear. Coming full circle, the sentence never turns out the same way that the first person said it. The same thing happens when repeatedly analyzing and talking about a certain memory. The more attention you give it, the more it grows. The same principle that can allow therapists to implant false memories is also relevant for friends, family, and the police. Mistaking imagination for memory can happen quickly and unknowingly.
Studies have shown that the more a person talks about a memory, the more it grows out of proportion. In the 1980s and 90s, therapists asked patients to picture what it would be like to be abused. Repeated over many weeks, these thoughts had grown into memories that tore apart whole families!
A Silver Lining
There is one positive side to the implementation of false memories. Therapists have started to use similar techniques to help those suffering from PTSD. They essentially rescript their memories into something more manageable, relieving them from the pain of their traumas in the process.
This is obviously great! Still, let’s be very careful when manipulating memories. In the end, you might become a whole different person and your view of the world will never be the same.