Sunday, February 4, 2007

Repressed Memories: The Business of Unscientific Therapy

Most therapy consumers are savvy enough to recognize that rebirthing and past life regression are not realistic approaches to psychological health. However, numerous educated help-seekers would be surprised to discover that some publicized and professionally presented therapeutic methods offer little scientific support and have been widely discredited by psychologists and doctors. The best disguised of these therapies are those associated with repressed memories and helping victims of traumatic events, such as assault or rape. They build on the antiquated and discredited theories of Sigmund Feud, pictured to the right, the forefather of psychoanalysis. According to The Skeptic’s Dictionary, psychodynamic theory is “second only to Scientology as the champion purveyor of false and misleading claims about the mind, mental health, and mental illness.” Even Freud himself eventually relinquished some of his claims about repressed memory, a condition where memories of traumatic experiences are pushed into the unconscious. As indicated by ABC Science’s Dr. Karl S. Kruszelnicki, Freud later realized that he had unintentionally implanted false memories in his client’s minds, causing the memories to appear real to his patients.

Scientific studies have proven how easily repressed memories can be created by therapists. One of the most creative and renowned studies was conducted by Elizabeth Loftus, a psychology professor and expert on repressed memory. A writer for The Boston Globe, Joanna Weis, recalls how Loftus “persuaded some lab subjects, falsely, that they remembered hugging Bugs Bunny at Disneyland;” as Bugs Bunny is not a Disneyland character, this could not have occurred. By using her authority position as a psychologist or by tampering with childhood photographs, Loftus has successfully convinced subjects that they underwent fictitious distress.

Repressed memories have been discredited by psychological studies and even their creator, Freud; however many widely used therapies today are based on this aspect of psychodynamic theory. Hypnosis, pictured to the left, is one such technique that has been utilized to recover memories that have been, allegedly, submerged into the unconscious. The American Heritage® Science Dictionary has defined hypnosis as “a trancelike state resembling sleep, usually induced by a therapist by focusing a subject's attention, that heightens the subject's receptivity to suggestion.” The Skeptic’s Dictionary refutes claims about the validity of hypnosis, citing research that has shown “a significant correlation between being able to be absorbed in imaginative activity and being responsive to hypnosis,” and “hypnosis does not enhance the accuracy of memory.” In other words, rational, less susceptible subjects and those who do not believe in hypnosis will not believe they are recovering memories - those that do believe they have achieved such results are victims of false memory implantation by the hypnotist. Nicholas Spanos, a psychologist who has done research on hypnosis, has found that a “subject acts in accordance with expectations of the hypnotist and hypnotic situation” instead of actually being controlled by the power of hypnosis.

Dissociative identity disorder (DID), more commonly known in films and pop culture as multiple personality disorder, is known to be discovered in patients through methods like hypnosis. Although it is sighted in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, pictured below, psychology professors and experts often claim that DID is actually the result of therapy and implanted memories connected to trauma. Symptoms, such as the belief that one has many personalities, usually begin after a client has started psychodynamic therapy and has been encouraged by the therapist that they have DID. Dr. Paul McHugh shows the strategies that therapists use to create such symptoms in clients. He sites a specialist on DID, Dr. Stephen Buie, who encourages psychologists to find out if their patient has the disorder. Buie says “You may have to elicit an alter... You can begin by indirect [sic] questioning such as, 'Have you ever felt like another part of you does things that you can't control?’” While the therapist genuinely believes they are helping a patient come to terms with an alternate personality, they are asking leading questions. Many clients will answer that, at times, they have felt out of control. From an unethical business perspective, this is a lucrative opportunity for therapists, who have “created both the disease and the cure,” according to Psychologist Nicholas P. Spanos.

Another form of therapy, related to repressed memories and used to help trauma victims, that has been widely discredited by professionals is EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). The confusing part about its ineffectiveness and lack of scientific support is that it seems to work. However, according to The Skeptic’s Dictionary, EMDR practitioners are simply combining a harmless and ineffective action, the moving of the eyes back and forth, with other successful therapy approaches for post-traumatic stress disorder, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. As in this case, if a therapist is lacking a license in psychology or psychiatry and practices psychoanalysis, hypnosis, or EMDR, any possible success may simply be due to a placebo effect. More importantly, utilizing repressed memories could do actual harm to a client. However, empirically supported treatment plans are available to consumers. A proven treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder or other trauma related problems is cognitive-behavioral therapy, a quick behavior-changing method practiced by many trained psychologists.

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