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PTSD Questions & Answers
Joyce Boaz & Dr. Frank Ochberg, M.D.

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Can A False Memory Happen?

Q: Dear Frank, my name is "D"

I am a member of the GFW Facebook page

I wondered if false memory can happen? I had what could be a false memory or flashback but I'm uncertain which is which.

This was the first time I had seen myself little, previously I had flashbacks of me when the ex hurt me, which I know to have happened. This time, I was only 3 or 4 years old and laying down, I was wearing denim overalls and the bottom of them were folded up, I seemed to be outside of my body at this point, I could see a person outside the room passing back and fourth, I couldn't see who tho, there was a person to the right of me and at this point I'm in my body and trying to get him away from me, by waving my arms, I was scared, I came back at this point and my face was very sad and think I heard my therapist say fouls memory and then I don't know what happened. Does this sound like fouls memory? Could you help define the differences please.

I would normally just believe what I hear but once I blacked out and he said I was cured but he actually didn't even say that, as I had asked him the next session of what happened between him talking and him saying I was cured, I can't ask him as I have been sent to a uni now for therapy and can't contact him anymore, as I ran out of sessions.

Thank you so much.

A: Dear "D"You ask an important and difficult question - is this a "true memory" or a "false memory." The concepts of true and false memory are rather complicated, since normal memory is seldom completely accurate. Images, sounds, sensations change with time. A person who wasn't even born when we were very young may seem to be present in a childhood scene, recalled decades later.

When a life event is terrifying and adrenalin is released at that moment, several things can occur. The imprint of that trauma can become deeply etched in the brain. It is something we want to forget but it announces itself over and over. This is the central symptom of the injury known as PTSD. But just because a trauma memory is powerful and frightening does not mean it is accurate. Many of my trauma patients have flashbacks that resemble dreams, combining images from different times and places as though they happened together when they clearly did not.

People sometimes are hypnotized to recover painful memory. Or they are given a tranquilizing drug like sodium amytal and guided toward a forgotten trauma from the past. These are considered ways to recover repressed memories. There is no guarantee that such recovered memory is accurate. In fact, most of my colleagues believe that people often try to please their therapists by creating memories that fit the assumptions of the therapist.

So my answer to you is that false memories do happen. Courts of law take this into account and require evidence, not just memory, to guide the trier of fact in a criminal or civil case.

I am not certain whether you had an accurate or a false memory. It could have been either.


Frank Ochberg, MD

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