At one time, memory researchers believed that human memory worked like a video recorder. All one had to do was to find the right tape, play it back, and relive the memories precisely as they were originally experienced. However, subsequent research showed that this model is inaccurate. Rather, most memories are simply forgotten. Few people have real memories of events that occurred before their 3rd birthday. Most memories during childhood are simply forgotten. For those memories that are actually remembered, the mind stores only elements of the actual events and reconstruct full memories later when the memories are recalled. The act of recalling memories can change them so that at the time of the next recall, they are somewhat modified.
Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT) was quite popular during the 1980s and 1990s but is now rarely used. It is a therapeutic technique based on the belief that traumatic memories of abuse -- typically sexual abuse experienced during childhood -- can be forgotten or repressed and later recovered during therapy. No matter how memories were recalled, they were believed to be accurate. Many suggestive techniques were used to reconstruct what appeared to be memories; however they are generally unrelated to real events from the past.
About 15 to 20% of persons with memories recovered via RMT go on to recover memory of ritual abuse and Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA). Such memories are often personally devastating. No hard evidence of SRA has ever been found. The consensus among investigators is that it never existed in the past and doesn't exist now.
However, there are many self-help and mutual support groups of individuals who have gone through RMT, have recovered what they believe to be memories of real abusive events, and firmly believe that they are the victims of childhood sexual assault, and/or SRA. The Internet has been very useful to these groups in helping them contact and communicate with other survivors.
RMT led to tens of thousands of adults accusing their parents of sexual abuse during childhood. Hundreds of parents went to jail. Tens of thousands of families of origin were shattered; many never recovered. The current near-consensus is that RMT does recover what seem to be childhood memories, but the memories are false. RMT as a therapeutic technique went into decline during the mid-1990s and has since been abandoned by the vast majority of therapists and counselors. Many former RMT therapists have switched to EMDR -- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, That form of therapy appears to be just as useless as RMT. However, at least it does not have the same potential for harm as did RMT.
Most therapists today differentiate between two types of memories:
- Memories of events that have always been available for recall, continuously from the time of the abuse to the present time. These are believed to be reasonably accurate. However, they are not precise recollections. The memory process itself distorts all memories.
- What appear to be memories that were laboriously pieced together during many months of RMT therapy. These are believed to be byproducts of the RMT processes and are entirely or almost entirely unrelated to real events. They feel like real memories, but are of incidences that never actually happened.