Monday 16 March 2020

The spontaneously recovered memory and the madeleine

A couple weeks ago I was made aware of something I've been meaning to write about for some time, but have forgotten to until today. That thing is the "forgot-it-all-along" effect. This is an absolutely fascinating topic, and one with personal bearing to me, for obvious reasons.

It's been about 10 months since I published the article "please (don't) hit record" at my main site. In that article, I mentioned the topics of repressed and suppressed memories of sexual abuse, since I initially reported my being a victim of CSAM production as a case of repressed (or suppressed), then spontaneously recovered, memory. In the paragraphs dealing with repressed and suppressed memories, I linked to this study, which demonstrates that spontaneously recovered memories are often as accurate as continuous memories, while induced recovered memories (e.g., memories "recovered" through therapy) tend to be inaccurate. It's already known and accepted that many induced recovered memories actually originate as suggestions accidentally implanted by therapists, with a famous study showing that it's not terribly difficult to suggest a memory which a patient then believes is genuine. This is the generally understood explanation for the daycare sexual abuse panic of the '80s (a panic that, regrettably, may have actually led to a lot of legitimate sexual abuse cases going unnoticed due to being categorised alongside wild and false claims).

However, as I mentioned, a few weeks ago I came across a study with an utterly fascinating claim: that some people who report spontaneously recovering memories of childhood sexual abuse never actually forgot, but simply failed to remember previous instances of remembering it. The paper's introduction has this utterly incredible part:
Partly with the aim of fostering this middle-ground perspective, Schooler and his coworkers (e.g., Schooler, Ambadar, & Bendiksen, 1997; Shobe & Schooler, 2001) described several case studies of individuals who experienced the ‘‘discovery’’ of apparently long-forgotten memories of abuse. Of particular interest in the current context are two cases in which the partners of the women who reported full-blown recovered-memory experiences said that the women had talked about the abuse before they had the memory-recovery experience. In both cases, the women seemed to be surprised to hear that they had talked about the abuse prior to their recovered-memory experiences. Schooler et al. proposed that these cases illustrated a ‘‘forgot it all along’’ (FIA) phenomenon, which at its core entails the underestimation of prior recollections of past events.
The study goes on, using two experiments to measure the ability of certain groups to recall having recalled things. Each experiment had a group of people with spontaneously recovered memories of sexual abuse, a group of people with continuous memories of sexual abuse, and a control group of people who were not abused. The first experiment had the subjects do a word pair recall task (e.g., pairs like hand-PALM are flashed, and then they are shown cues such as hand-P--M only and asked to input the missing two letters), and then asked them later if they believed they had correctly recalled the pairs. The second experiment was a bit more complex: it presented the subjects with cue phrases about common childhood experiences, such as going to the dentist or being home alone, and asked them to, with either a positive or negative framing, give an open-ended autobiographical report about that experience; after the first test, two subsequent tests, each two months apart, asked them to recall the same events, but with the emotional framing changed on half of them, and the third test further asked them to judge how well they had recalled the events on the previous test.

And in both experiments, those who reported recovered CSA memories were more likely than anyone else to say that they had not recalled correctly, even when they did.

Another study revises this theory, using different experiments, more based on contextual information and changes in context, in order to investigate the idea that there is something different about the way information is recalled in a recovered-memory experience that makes one forget prior experiences of recalling the same information. Experiment 1 here uses a cued-recall test similar to the one in Geraerts et al., with each target word being a homograph—for instance, "palm" in the sense of both "hand" and "tree", with the study seeing them used in one context (e.g., "hand-PALM") and the tests having them shown either in the same context or in a different context; participants were dramatically more likely to forget having recalled the target words correctly in the first test if the second text used cues relating to the other context, but an alternative explanation offered is that using the other-context cue on the first test simply makes recall less likely all around. Meanwhile, Experiment 2 manipulates context on both the first and second test, in order to discern between the "forgot-it-all-along" explanation and the alternative explanation, and once again, the participants were more likely to forget having recalled targets correctly if the contexts had been manipulated. Experiment 3, instead of changing between two different meanings of the same word ("palm" as in "tree" and "hand"), changes between contexts but not meanings ("palm" as in "hand" only, but in two different contexts), with cues being whole sentences (e.g., "he swatted the fly using the p*** of his hand" in one context, "the fortune teller traced the lifeline on the p*** of his hand" in another); again, participants were more likely to forget having recalled targets correctly if they had studied with one context and been cued with another. Experiment 4 completely eliminates one potential objection—that subjects, instead of basing their judgements of prior recollection on whether they had remembered the target word in the first test, based their judgements on whether they recalled seeing the first test's cue in the second test—by turning the first test into a free recall test instead of a cued recall test, and yet again, the participants were more likely to forget having recalled targets if the contexts had changed.

So this study identifies a potential mechanism for how the forgot-it-all-along effect could work: for someone remembering a particular experience in a new context, it may simply feel as though this is the first time they had remembered it at all. The authors note that
instances of prior recollection may be difficult to recall as distinct episodes because cues for those prior recollections will also be cues (and perhaps better cues) for memories of the initial event itself; this may limit revival of the memory information for the prior recollection through cue overload, or produce blended ecphoric products in which the information from prior recollections is experienced as part of the recollection of the event itself (indeed, this may be an important part of the way rehearsal works). If cuing conditions selectively favor revival of one or more prior instances of recollection over revival of the event itself, that memory information may be mistaken as a memory of a perceptual experience (i.e., the individual thinks she or he is remembering an actual experience but is really reviving memories of prior recollections of that experience rather than memories of the event itself); in other cases in which cuing conditions selectively favor revival of memories of prior instances of recollection, the individual may mistakenly judge that she or he never experienced the event in question but rather had only thought about or imagined experiencing it.
So what does this all mean? For me, it's a relief. Considering my own recovered-memory experience further, I've realised that I have had prior episodes of recall for years prior to that experience—in 2010 when I was questioning my sexual orientation, in 2012 after watching Alfred's Playhouse for the first time. 2014 was not the first time that I recalled being sexually abused, but rather was a new context for me to consider it in. It's a relief, knowing that I'm not insane, that I'm not making it up, that my brain didn't simply fabricate the whole story. That what I'm telling is the truth, and that my pain has a reason.

And, further, it's simply a fascinating and overlooked development in the area of memory research. That the brain can forget having recalled a piece of information before if it's recalled again in a new context is something that is deeply interesting, and it raises new questions as to how the processes of remembering and forgetting work. It brings to mind Proust's madeleine—one has to wonder whether the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea is truly what brought Aunt Leonie and Combray to the narrator's mind, or if its taste simply provided a new context, one which perhaps prevented his recall of other memories of remembering.

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