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DR MAX PEMBERTON: False memory is real but not for Ghislaine victims

DR MAX PEMBERTON: Yes, false memory is real… but not for victims of Ghislaine

  • Dr Max Pemberton discusses the condition of ‘false memory syndrome’
  • He says too often the condition is used to introduce doubt into minds of a jury
  • Says it’s used to try and give medical-sounding reason as to why someone might falsely accuse someone else

There were plenty of awful, horrifying things to come out of the Ghislaine Maxwell case. It turned my stomach listening to the way young girls were trafficked and abused.

But another aspect of the trial that sickened me was the way the defence tried to discredit the brave testimonies of the victims by claiming they had ‘false memory syndrome’.

This is a hugely controversial subject within psychiatry, and too often it’s used as a way to introduce doubt into the minds of a jury and give a medical-sounding reason as to why someone might falsely accuse someone else.

There’s no doubt that our memories of events can be surprisingly bad, and this is very well supported by evidence.

Despite what we might think, our minds are far from infallible and we are bad at accurately recalling details.

Any psychologist will tell you, more fool the person who absolutely, unquestioningly believes their own recollection of events. Study after study shows that our memory is atrocious; we forget things, invent things, conflate events and play around with timings in our minds.

Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) discusses the condition of ‘false memory syndrome’

Over time, our recollections are routinely flawed.

A really fascinating study was conducted after 9/11. Researchers interviewed people, asking them to recall where they were and what they were doing at the time of the terrorist attacks in New York.

Years later, the researchers went back and interviewed the same people again, asking the same questions. But the answers were astonishingly different — around 60 per cent of the details had changed.

So more than half of what people recalled was wrong, yet they swore blind that this is what they had experienced and, indeed, what they had originally told the researchers. But — and this is the incredible part — when the researchers confronted the interviewees with this, they were adamant that the most recent version of events they had shared with the researchers was, in fact, the correct one.

When they were played back recordings of the first interviews, the participants sat stunned and confused and said things such as, ‘I don’t know why I said that; it’s not true’ and still stuck to their new version of events.

False memory syndrome draws on this notion that our memories are fallible, but takes it one step further. Rather than recalling events incorrectly, the theory goes, the entire thing is a fiction.

In the 1990s, a type of therapy, called recovered-memory therapy, whereby therapists would attempt to retrieve repressed memories of traumatic events, became popular.

It was thought individuals who had experienced severe trauma sometimes dealt with this by repressing it to the extent they forgot it had even happened.

The role of the therapist was to try to uncover these hidden memories and explore the related trauma. What this therapy method failed to take into account was how suggestible people are, and how easy it is to conjure up memories of events that never actually took place.

The practice was widely condemned for being unreliable, and itself traumatising — not least for innocent people who were being wrongly accused.

The term ‘false memory syndrome’ was used to describe these ‘recovered’, but entirely untrue, recollections.

Now, however, it’s more broadly used as a term to discredit testimonies of victims of abuse.

Dr Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist and well-known expert in memory, told the court in the Ghislaine Maxwell case that people ‘can be subjected to post-event suggestion’.

David Beckham has again missed out on a knighthood 

There’s no doubt he’s done good things for charity, but often I think of the nurses I work with, who care for people with severe mental illness and go above and beyond to help them — yet get no recognition.

They deserve honours far more than any celebrity.

This is certainly true. Hearing things on the news, talking with friends afterwards and so on all helps us to add details that might not be based in truth, and we edit and manipulate the memory to suit our understanding of an event, often to portray ourselves more favourably.

However, when Dr Loftus was cross-examined she conceded that, while ‘peripheral memories’ from a traumatic event may be forgotten, the event’s ‘core memories’ — the recollection of the actual, key event — may in fact become stronger.

There’s no doubt that some people, for a variety of reasons, confabulate and lie about being the victim of abuse.

There’s also no doubt that our memories are often inaccurate, vague or confused.

But the idea that you could misremember being a victim of sex trafficking and rape is quite something else.

To rely on this as a defence, to cast a shadow over the brave testimony of the victims, feels desperate and distasteful.

I’m so pleased the jury saw through this.

■ Early retirees are going back to work to find a sense of purpose, according to a recent survey.

Of those who retired before the age of 66, a sixth had decided to return to work. More than a quarter did so to regain meaning in their lives, while a similar proportion missed the social interaction. I see this often. Retirees feel lost, wondering what defines them now they no longer have the status their job provided. It’s a normal response to an enormous upheaval. This seems to be the case particularly with professionals such as lawyers, doctors, businessmen — probably because they dedicated the best years of their lives to their careers. But people from all walks of life have told me it’s the routine they miss. Ensuring we find new interests and interact with people daily is vital to protect us from the negative effects of stopping work

I’m a fan of missing out, too

Dakota Johnson has said that, despite being 32, she feels like she’s pushing 50 because, while being the toast of Hollywood with her pick of star-studded events and glamorous parties to attend, she has started to enjoy ‘cosy and private’ time in with her boyfriend, Coldplay singer Chris Martin.

She said her quiet social life makes her feel older than she is, but I think she should embrace it.

One of the few positive things to come out of the pandemic is a slower pace of life. I always used to rush around, cramming things in. Pre-pandemic, I was out and about most evenings, sometimes doing several things in one night, always with a sense of FOMO — fear of missing out. Now I’ve realised that there is some bliss in staying in and sitting down.

Who cares what else is going on? It’s been termed JOMO — the joy of missing out and, like Dakota, I’m a fan!

Who cares what else is going on? It’s been termed JOMO — the joy of missing out and, like Dakota, I’m a fan!

Dr Max prescribes… hit the gym hard!

While we all sympathise with depression, anxiety is often seen as less serious. Yet many of my patients with both say anxiety is worse to contend with. Research last week found patients who took part in a programme of exercises of different intensities, three times a week for an hour, for 12 weeks, had reduced anxiety. Circuit training and strength and cardio exercises decreased muscle tension and boosted endorphins.

Circuit training and strength and cardio exercises decreased muscle tension and boosted endorphins (stock image)

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