Shrinking from the truth

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The foundations of the psychotherapy industry shook a little yesterday. The British Psychological Society concluded that childhood memories may sometimes be false. There may indeed be occasions when an adult ``recalls'' terrible, traumatic events that have not actually taken place.

This conclusion is worrying for all of us. It means that some people genuinely believe they are victims of abuse that did not occur. Equally, there are individuals who are accused falsely of perpetrating abuse.

Yesterday's report poses a particular challenge to those working in the field of mental health. The discovery of a forgotten past lies at the heart of the healing that many professionals offer. Freud regarded repressed feelings and experiences as the cornerstone of psychoanalytical theory. Yet the society's report highlights the many tricks the mind can play on both client and therapist.

More serious still is the fact that many cases of false memory seem to occur when people are on the couch. In other words, the practices that are used in psychotherapy may be contributing to the problem of false memory syndrome.

All responsible practitioners should be disturbed by this news. They can take comfort in the report's conclusion that most recovered memories are essentially accurate. Child sexual abuse is acknowledged to be a real and widespread phenomenon that mental health workers have played a vital role in uncovering. But we now need to know how to distinguish the majority of true recollections from the few instances of false memories.

Yesterday's report provides some guidance: hypnosis, leading questions and a pressurised environment all incline a person to false memories. Psychotherapists should take heed. Freud and his successors always acknowledged the power and dangers of psychological suggestion, but many poorly trained therapists still impose their own thoughts on vulnerable and unwitting clients.

The report only strengthens the case for proper regulation of psychotherapy. Its conclusions also indicate that much more research is required into determining what makes people ``remember'' events that did not take place.

The notion of false memories should not be particularly startling. It is not surprising that people occasionally frame their problems in terms of fantasies. Our minds are complex entities that can hide, disguise and invent. Anyone seeking to discover realities should be aware of the potential for being misled.

Psychotherapists try to heal a part of human beings that they barely understand. Many should now be more humble and a lot less certain that they have all the answers.

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