Paul Shanley Case and Repressed Memory

The Paul Shanley Case and Repressed Memory Recovery: Not Such Thin Partitions
By Jean Mercer, Ph.D.
Created Jan 17 2010 - 10:39am

A few days ago, the Boston Globe reported that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has upheld the conviction of Paul Shanley, a former priest accused of sexual abuse occurring about twenty years ago. The appeal of Shanley's conviction was based on objections to the lower court's acceptance of testimony based on recovered memories of the event, which were said to have been repressed by the victim. In upholding the conviction, the higher court said: "... the judge's finding that the lack of scientific testing did not make unreliable the theory that an individual may experience dissociative amnesia was supported in the record, not only by expert testimony but by a wide collection of clinical observations and a survey of academic literature". This was in spite of the submission of comments rejecting the idea of repressed memories by experts such as Richard McNally. However, the opinion went on to say, the Supreme Judicial Court may decide in the future to throw out a conviction where the only evidence is recovered memories.

Repugnant as is the idea of sexual abuse of children, especially by figures of authority, it is also repugnant to think that misinformation may have trumped good evidence in this and similar cases. It is always a problem to translate scientific standards of evidence into legal standards, because legal standards are based on concepts like "what a reasonable man would think" or on the preponderance of evidence, and scientific standards have traditionally been based on probabilities. Recently scientific standards, especially in medical and psychological areas, have also considered the quality or level of evidence supporting a claim. This perspective seems to be difficult for courts to handle.

The higher court's statement about "the lack of scientific testing" misses several points about the evaluation of scientific evidence. One important point is that it is not possible to prove that something (such as repressed memory recovery) does not exist or did not exist in the past. There are two ways to provide evidence about non-existence. One is to amass evidence that some situation, mutually exclusive with the point in dispute, does or did exist-- for example, if I say a person attacked me, evidence that he or she was on another continent at the time shows that what I claim could not have happened. Another approach, one that is becoming more important as people focus on quality or levels of evidence, is to show that evidence supporting the existence of a phenomenon (for instance, repressed memory recovery) is not of good quality. In the case of repressed memory recovery and other issues, critiques of research methods and reporting can invalidate the evidence claiming that something exists. Critiques of the research evidence supporting repressed memory recovery, by Richard McNally, Susan Clancy, and others, have effectively shown that such evidence is of poor quality.

When deciding whether evidence is good or poor, experts often begin by examining whether an idea is plausible. Is it possible that events could come about as claimed? How does the suggested function agree with known, well-supported information about other functions? Although there can certainly be real "breakthroughs" in which a discovery shows that what we thought we knew was wrong, the simplest conclusion about an implausible idea is that it is mistaken.

The idea of recovered repressed memories is in fact implausible. It is at odds with everything known about human memory. It contradicts the fact that vivid experiences (as sexual abuse would presumably be) create lasting memories, as well as the fact that memories change and are reconstructed over time, even those that are easily accessible and frequently recalled. It also contradicts the fact that thoughts that we experience as remembered may come from sources other than memories of actual experiences of our own.

I would suggest that the idea of recoverable repressed memories is based, not on modern understanding of memory, but on a belief about memory accepted by Sigmund Freud but dating to a period much earlier than his. This view of memory was put forth initially by the 18th-century philosopher John Locke, and was later elaborated by the British Associationist school of psychology. The basic concept at work here was described poetically by Alexander Pope in his lines:

Remembrance and reflection, how allied;/ What thin partitions sense from thought divide.

Pope and the Associationists assumed that thoughts and ideas were simply results of the impact of sense experiences on the mind. These results, like ripples of a stone thrown into a pond, could fade with time, but were completely determined by the event that caused them. If recalled, they came back into consciousness in exactly the same form in which they were originally created. People who had many thoughts and ideas were people who had had many experiences; those with few thoughts had been deprived of experience. Ideas could be connected with each other (forming a "complex") if sensations were often experienced together.

I don't mean to ascribe the idea of repression to the Associationist school, of course. That idea has different sources. My point here is that this early view held that memories were accurate reflections of experiences, and that although they might fade with time they remained accurate. The "thin partititions" had no capacity to alter memories so that they would not accurately resemble the original experience. This same belief is characteristic of ideas about recovered memory: that whenever a memory is accessed, or whenever a person experiences a thought as remembered, the experience is a direct parallel to the person's sensory experience in the past.

Our understanding of memory today stresses "thick partitions" that divide sensory experience and thoughts or memories. Processing of sensory information and later cognitive activity change thoughts and experienced memories. Memories that have not been accessed before do not suddenly emerge as accurate recordings of past experience. It is disappointing that courts have not yet come to terms with this fact.

3 comments:

Georgia Girl said...

The following statement is your opinion -- not a fact:

"Memories that have not been accessed before do not suddenly emerge as accurate recordings of past experience."

If the "forgotten" memory is of a significant and traumatic nature, it is etched in one's subconscience indefinitely. I believe it's the mind's way of preserving sanity.

Once tapped, the recovered memories are vivid, detailed, and accurate. You see, we don't actually "forgot" significant events. We store them until the mind allows us access.

Georgia Girl said...

The following statement is your opinion -- not a fact:

"Memories that have not been accessed before do not suddenly emerge as accurate recordings of past experience."

If the "forgotten" memory is of a significant and traumatic nature, it is etched in one's subconscience indefinitely. I believe it's the mind's way of preserving sanity.

Once tapped, the recovered memories are vivid, detailed, and accurate. You see, we don't actually "forgot" significant events. We store them until the mind allows us access.

GeorgiaGirl said...

"forget", that is