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Expert therapists and psychologists say that false memories are an ubiquitous phenomenon of much study and misunderstanding.They occur frequently and are typically deemed little more than mistakes without much in-depth thought being applied to them according to criminal psychologist, Julia Shaw, a criminal psychologist at London South Bank University.More and more research is being allocated to this kind of memory fallacy, and Shaw undertakes cases wherein she traces indicators of misremembered things.
“False memories are everywhere,” Shaw says. “In everyday situations we don’t really notice or care that they’re happening.We call them mistakes, or say we misremember things.” The kind of cues she looks for might be something like age because it can factor into the accuracy of one’s memory in several different ways.A toddler, for example, has a brain that cannot form memories proficiently enough to sustain them into adulthood, so memories formed during such early childhood are often to be taken with a grain of salt.
Shaw being a criminal psychologist in particular, she also applies it to criminal allegations by investigating the company an accuser was keeping at the time when they recalled a memory or by analyzing the questions they were asked.She also looks at whether or not the questions were asked in certain contexts like that of a therapy session, for example, wherein one could reasonably have caused the generation of a memory in that person that was not otherwise there.
Shaw also researches any claims people make that a memory simply reemerged from the unconscious mind without prompt.There is extensive and rather old research pointing to the validity of the concept of the repressed memory in such a scenario, and many people are familiar with this concept at this point; consequently, it’s something that people who intend to deceive employ fairly often.What’s uncommon knowledge, though, is that this Freudian idea is actually a discredited concept that suggests the revealed scenario was allegedly forgotten but can elucidate one’s emotional and psychological trauma or distress.It actually hasn’t been substantiated.
Shaw engaged in a case wherein the validity of this concept was quite pertinent, and the case evolved, as a result, into a sort of study.In 2015, two sisters reported sexual abuse in vivid detail, both accusing a close, female relative.They claimed this abuse occurred between the years of 1975 and 1976.The relative’s defense attorney pulled Shaw into the case for her opinion as an expert witness, and Shaw deemed it rather unusual.
“Usually, in cases of sexual abuse, the father is the accused,” Shaw said, pointing out the first aspect that struck her as odd. “In this case, it was a girl.” The sisters had to have been aged about four and seven at the times they specified whereas the relative was somewhere between ten and 12.Going over the transcripts, Shaw found the language used to describe the violation bizarre as well. “She kept saying, ‘My childhood was rough and I buried so much.I think it was my coping mechanism, I must have just blocked it.’ These are things that point to an assumption of repression.This is the idea that if something bad happens, you can hide it in a corner of your brain,” Shaw recounts.
Shaw eventually surmised that there was a social contagion—that is, a contaminated testimony in which someone else helped form the account of what occurred. “The transcript also gave the impression that the [original] complainant was at times also comfortable with guessing memory details, saying, for example, ‘I can’t remember, I just had this really weird feeling that she used to make us do stuff to each other,” Shaw recollects.
Shaw ended up concluding that, though the two sisters were ostensibly convinced of what happened, their accounts weren’t reliable. “I don’t try to figure out if a person is guilty or innocent,” says Shaw. “It’s about whether the memory is reliable or not.” New evidence got the court to drop the case ultimately, so the defendant is attempting to forget it all over again.Shaw says, “I like being the person to say, ‘actually, this is bad evidence,’ if it is.That’s something you can’t do if you don’t know the science.”
“We’ve done things that people in policing or law don’t understand,” says Shaw. “An academic journal has ten people reading it.We’re doing this to have an impact.” She’s explaining her belief that limited awareness of memory research in therapy, law and policing is contributing to systemic failures.In other words, Shaw is pointing to all the cases wherein the justice system has privileged testimonies founded upon the unsubstantiated, Freudian concepts of old, and she’s strongly advocating that psychological awareness be updated and more accessible to keep this sort of thing from happening because new research debunking the old still yields to the old in the minds of those who prosecute alleged offenders.
Shaw is, in fact, training the German police force on enhancing interrogation tactics from a psychological standpoint so as to ensure that these sorts of problems are avoidable in Germany.This is because she is driven by the consequences of memories that have gone awry.The mere concept of a memory is far more complex than some seem to think, and respecting that complexity, according to Shaw, is vital to the veracity of a justice system’s conclusions.