A false memory is when you remember something that didn’t happen or remember it differently from how it was.
Having never heard of false memories before, it’s shocking to learn that not only are memories inaccurate, but they can also be implanted.
It is common for people to trust their memories as reliable records. Nevertheless, according to psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who has devoted her career to examining false memories, memories are constructed and reconstructed. As Dr Loftus stated in her interview with TED radio hour, memories are like Wikipedia pages, which both you and others can edit.
False memory in OCD, in particular the ability to implant a false memory, is an invaluable concept in terms of what Loftus calls rich false memories. The reason for this is that they are so elaborate and detailed.
False memories are more likely to occur in
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Case study; False memory example
Sarah attended therapy for OCD and said during treatment that she had done something terrible in the past. She kept bringing this up at future sessions, where I could see, and you shall see, how the story became more elaborate.
Doubt is front and centre in all forms of OCD. In the beginning, Sarah stated she had been drinking and was worried she could have done something in the past and not remembered it as she was drunk. Like most people with OCD, she obsessed about this, trying to piece together details to find out what she had done.
She watched something on television about child abuse and worried that she could have done something to a child and not remembered.
She tried to recall all instances where she was with children. She panicked as she had looked after her neighbour’s child and couldn’t remember if she had done anything to the child.
Sarah dropped out of therapy and recommenced several months later, distraught. She wanted to turn to the authorities and confess. She was convinced that the police would turn up at her door and she would lose her children.
How are false memories formed?
In the case study above, it is relevant to note that Sarah initially did not mention children. She doubted that she had done something in the past and had forgotten it. After she watched a program on abuse, she wondered if she could have done that. Was that what she had forgotten? As she tried to piece together all the times she had contact with children, she became susceptible to suggestions.
Misinformation and Inference
A distorted memory can result from mixing incorrect and accurate information.
Our brains need to make sense of the world and can quickly fill in gaps in knowledge to help piece things together meaningfully.
For several months, Sarah spent hours every day, obsessing about all her contact with children. It’s difficult to distinguish between factual recollections of all instances with children and her escalating fear that she could be like one of those people on TV who abuse kids.
Sarah pulled apart memories of, for example, dressing her children, trying to remember did she touch them or how she looked at them. At this point, it’s crucial to point out and to help you understand that Sarah is obsessed with the idea that she may have made a mistake in the past and may not remember it.
Months later, after seeing a program on abuse, she wondered, could that be what she had done? Accurate memories of, for example, getting her kids ready for bed can get mixed with inaccurate inferences and worries from her fears that she could have acted inappropriately.
How to know the difference
Research has shown that actual memories are based on more detail, whereas false memories are based more on familiarity (knowing). This is known as the remember/know paradigm (1). Remembering is a conscious recollection of many details, such as sound, images, and where and when. Familiarity with knowing is more unconscious. The idea seems familiar, but I’m not sure why.
Someone with false memory OCD might struggle with the difference until they apply the paradigm to someone else. For example, if you asked Sarah what her first child’s birthday was like, she would give the exact details of the day. Her memories will be colourful and contain many details. Whereas if you ask her how you know you did something to a child, her answer will lack this clarity. Rather than provide details, she says, I don’t know; I feel it could be true.
False memories in OCD can feel real, but that does not mean they are true. Establishing a highly constructed narrative in your head and trying to piece together information to back up your feeling can cause a false memory that can feel real, increasing your doubt. If you want to recover, the key is working with the doubt, not the feeling that you may have done something wrong in the past.
Getting help for false memory OCD
Throughout my experience as a psychologist for 20 years, people with false memory OCD constantly ask me how I (as a psychologist) know it’s not true. This style of engagement is not helpful to the person and needs to be considered as a symptom of OCD; doubt and reassurance seeking.
The role of doubt needs to be firmly established as a precursor and maintainer of false memories. Exposure-response prevention can be helpful in eliminating the compulsions, such as the constant mental review of past experiences.
Examples of compulsions in False memory OCD
Reviewing past experiences to prove or disprove your doubts is a common False Memory OCD compulsion. So if your obsessive thought is that you could have done something inappropriate to a child, you will mentally review all instances of contact with children.
In Sarah’s case, she attempted to get reassurance by mentally reviewing all contact with children and asking me, as her therapist.
When someone with False Memory OCD thinks they are guilty of something in the past, they may feel a strong need to confess. In the case study above, when I asked Sarah what she wanted to admit to, she could not provide a factual account of any wrongdoings.
False memories in OCD can disrupt a person’s life and lead them to act in ways that cause them to feel guilty as though they were guilty. Feeling that something might be true does not make it a fact.
- Klumpp, H., Amir, N., & Garfinkel, S. N. (2009). False memory and obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Depression and anxiety, 26(5), 396–402. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.20526