False Memory Syndrome

What is false memory syndrome?

False memory syndrome (also known as pseudo-memory, recovered memory or memory distortion syndrome) is a psychological disorder. Patients suffering from this condition seem to remember events that never occurred. These memories are usually very detailed and emotionally charged.

Very often false memories are about violence and abuse during childhood period. This syndrome is not recognised by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. Still false memory syndrome as a term is used in legal and scientific aspects [1].


The main cause for false memory syndrome is believed to be recovered memory therapy. This type of therapy refers to methods that are used to recover oppressed memories. Some therapists believe that oppressed memories can lead to a current psychiatric disorder. Recovered memory therapy includes hypnosis, sedatives and questioning to bring back the oppressed memories.

Psychiatric and psychological professionals have strong scepticism towards recovering memories of trauma. All methods used to do this can influence people to actually develop false memories. Once the false memories are stored in the brain, a person might never forget them and continue believing that they are true. Some people might become obsessed with these false memories and they can further shape a person’s life. In some cases false memories can even result in delusional disorders (also see Capgras syndrome)

There is no actual scientific data to prove that repressed memories can be recovered through any type of therapies. In fact, in most cases abuse victims are not able to repress these memories. Only a small portion of people actually oppress their memories of abuse. At the same time, there is also no evidence that false memories have been suggested by therapists [2].

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Suggestive influences

There are some types of therapies, during which the patient is more likely to be exposed to false memory syndrome. These are:

  • Dream interpretation
  • Hypnosis
  • Guided imagery
  • Survivors groups (read about Battered woman syndrome)
  • Groups for adult children with alcoholic parents (read about Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome)
  • Regular therapy sessions- less often the cause of false memories [3].


The main symptom of false memory syndrome is that the patient seems to remember events that actually never took place. In most cases these memories are about childhood abuse. The typical patient is:

  • Female, usually taking part in psychotherapy sessions
  • Reports sexual abuse in childhood
  • The memories of abuse have been recovered at an adult age
  • Abuse has been represses ranging from 8 to 40 years
  • The accused person is usually the father or another close relative
  • In around 30% of cases, mothers have also been reported to have taken a part in the abuse
  • These memories only appear after some type of suggestion
  • Sometimes the patient remembers events from they were less than 3 years old (read about shaken baby syndrome)[3]

Formation of false memories

The human mind is not yet fully understood. Formation of memories is a complicated process. In false memory syndrome there are three main steps that are believed to be necessary for the patient to form these memories:

  • Pressure to come up with memories
  • Encouragement to construct memories of events, if the person is having trouble to remember
  • Discouragement to think if the memories are true or false

If these three external factors are present, the patient is likely to construct memories of events that never took place. The patient might combine their actual memories with false ones. It is possible that someone has suggested some of the memories to the patient but they are likely to forget them. The precise mechanism of how false memories are formed is not known, but one of the biggest problems is the inability to prove or disprove them [4].


Discovering false memories might not be an easy task. A thorough investigation must be done in order to prove that the patient is or is not telling the truth. Almost a certain way to tell that the memory is false is to ask the patient how old they were at the time when the event took place. If they say they were younger than three years old, most likely the memory is false. Children under three years are not able to store long term memories, because the left inferior prefrontal lobe is not fully developed. However, children are capable of remembering fragments of events.

Most specialists do not consider memories that have been retrieved by hypnosis or other therapies to be true. A patient might have had a traumatic experience, but they don’t remember it completely until seeing such specialist. Later on patient might have false memories, mixed together with real memories. This problem is very hard to deal with and requires a lot of investigation. Even if the patient’s memories are false, it can still severely influence their quality of life. The memory can be false, but it still feels real to the patient (also read about Old hag syndrome) [5].


There are usually two types of patients seeking help and treatment. It is either the accused persons or the accusers.

Accused person’s

In most cases the accused persons are seeking for help, because they don’t know how to deal with the stress and severity of such accuses. Also, when the accused person is under investigation for the alleged crime, they are likely to be seen by a therapist. The treatment usually is psychotherapy.


The accusers who are not ready to forgive their wrongdoers or who have not considered that their memories are wrong are not likely to seek for any treatment. They might go to therapists that support their beliefs. If the patient starts to express doubts about their memories, the doctor should review them.

Patients who recognise that they have had false memories are usually very brittle and feel ashamed of their actions. They fear that they will not be forgiven and also, they can express anger towards their doctors [6].

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  1. General patient information: https://www.britannica.com/topic/false-memory-syndrome
  2. Causes: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/irish-journal-of-psychological-medicine/article/div-classtitlefalse-memory-syndromediv/A1210A28802CC3949BC4C560D85FD8D8
  3. Presentation and risk groups: http://apt.rcpsych.org/content/aptrcpsych/4/5/253.full.pdf
  4. Forming false memories: http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/sciam.htm
  5. Diagnostics: http://www.skepdic.com/falsememory.html
  6. Management: http://www.fmsfonline.org/?families=CopingWithAnAccusation

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