Memories of Historical Sexual Abuse

by Michael Davidson

A number of allegations of historical sexual abuse have recently hit the courts in the UK. This follows revelations of sexual abuse on the part of the celebrity DJ Jimmy Savile who died in 2011. Following his death there were 450 complaints against Savile including 34 rapes and 28 sexual assaults on children under 10 years of age at the time, some offences dating back to the 1950’s. Savile was associated with numerous charities and good causes during his lifetime, all of which are now embarrassed by their association with him.

The publicity surrounding this scandal has encouraged people to come forward with allegations concerning sexual misconduct by other celebrities and non-celebrities many years ago, some of which are now proceeding through the courts with attendant publicity. I do not envy the jurors their task of deciding on the guilt or innocence of the defendants in these cases. The defence is often that the alleged perpetrator was not in the stated place at the stated time, or had never met the alleged victim, or the sexual relations were consensual, so it boils down to one person’s word against another’s. Clearly, rape and sexual assault where proved should be punished according to the law. But imagine for the moment that you are suddenly confronted by a policeman who states that an allegation, or worse several allegations, of sexual assault perpetrated perhaps decades ago have been made against you. How to defend yourself? Unless you kept a detailed diary which says where you were and who you were with at the time in question, and can then call on witnesses or other documentation, you are in a sticky situation. You can easily start to doubt your own memory.

The key questions are “How reliable is memory?” and “How can memories be assessed for truth?”

Even if we were able to report precisely what we see, our accounts of what occurred some time ago rely on our memories that can be subject to error in many ways. Psychologist Daniel Schacter (Ref 1) has listed seven sins that our memories are subject to:

  • 1) transience
    forgetting things gradually over time
  • 2) absentmindedness
    forgetting because of not paying attention to things that we should have
  • 3) blocking
    The temporary inability to remember something that is known when you need it (it may pop into consciousness some time later)
  • 4) misattribution
    assigning a memory to the wrong source, such as attributing someone’s statements to another
  • 5) suggestibility
    developing false memories for events that did not happen
  • 6) bias
    changing past events in support of current attitudes and beliefs
  • 7) persistence
    remembering past episodes that we would prefer to forget.

The phenomenon of false memory is regarded as particularly problematical for any notion of objective reporting (Hall, McFeaters & Loftus Ref 2).   In a well known experiment into the reliability of eye witness testimony (Loftus & Palmer Ref 3) 45 students were each shown seven short film clips of car accidents. The students were asked to describe the accident they had just seen and then answer a number of questions. The 45 students were divided into 5 groups who answered a slightly different set of questions. The key difference was the question: “About how fast were the cars going when they xxx into each other?” where xxx was substituted by one of the verbs “smashed”, “collided”, “bumped”, “hit “, and “contacted “. When the word “smashed ” was used the mean estimated speed was 41mph and when “contacted ” the mean estimated speed was 32mph, with the other verbs somewhere in between (“hit” was 34mph). This result could be due to distortion of memory by the verb used, or it could be caused by distorted report based on what the student thinks is the expected answer.

In a follow-up experiment 150 students were shown a short film with a 4 second multiple car accident. The students were divided into 3 groups and asked several questions, one of which was asked the ‘smashed’ question and another, the ‘hit’ question. The third was not queried about the speed. A week later all 150 students were asked a number of other questions including the critical question: “Did you see any broken glass?” (there was none in the film). Here is the result:

  • Broken Glass seen
    smashed: 16 (55%); hit: 7; control: 6.
  • Broken Glass not seen
    smashed: 34 (28%); hit: 43; control: 44.

Considering the fact that the difference in response appears to have occurred because of one word in one question among several asked one week earlier (p < 1%), this calls for some explanation. The ‘reconstructive hypothesis’ is that two types of information go to make up a memory of an event. One is the information obtained from the perception of the event and another is the information supplied after the event (in this case the suggestion of ‘hit’ or ‘smashed’). These may become integrated as one memory. When the question about broken glass is asked, the subject who thought he saw a smash rather than a mere hit, reasons that there must have been glass and adds it to the memory.

The phenomenon that memory can be changed after the fact is not confined to episodic memory. There is evidence that the brain converts short term memory into long-term memory by a hypothetical process known as ‘memory consolidation’. Experiments with conditioning in different animals as divergent as bees, snails and rats show that consolidated memories are not fixed for all time, but can become malleable when they are reactivated. This is known as ‘reconsolidation’ and it only occurs in a ‘window’ of time after the reactivation of the memory.

The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) developed the idea of ‘conditioning’ around 1900.   This was mainly through his work with the salivary response of dogs to food.   As a physiologist Pavlov was interested in the chemistry of digestion and was collecting saliva from dogs when they were presented with food.   The salivation response is automatic and not learned.    When he rang a bell just before giving the dog food a few times he found the bell on its own would cause the saliva to flow.   Pavlov called the stimulus that caused the physiological response on its own (the presentation of food) ‘the unconditional stimulus’.   This was because it always gave rise to ‘the unconditional response’ or ‘the unconditional reflex’ (saliva).   The ‘conditional stimulus’ was the originally neutral stimulus (bell) which through enough pairings with the ‘unconditional stimulus’ (food) would display the same response (the ‘conditional response’ – saliva).   In other words, the animal had learnt a connection between the two stimuli and it responded in the same way to either of the two.   Pavlovian conditioning of a fear response gradually diminishes when the conditional stimulus is not associated with the unconditional stimulus (a process known as ‘deconditioning’), but the fear response is liable to return later (so-called ‘spontaneous recovery’).

An experiment to investigate the reconsolidation window in humans was performed in 2009 in which the unconditional stimulus was an electric shock and the conditional stimulus an image of a coloured square. The ‘fear’ stimulated by the coloured square was measured by the change in the electrical resistance of the palms. The experiment found that if the deconditioning is performed inside the reconsolidation window (say 10 minutes after a ‘reminder’ conditional stimulus) there does not appear to be spontaneous recovery even a year later. On the other hand where the deconditioning occurred outside the reconsolidation window (say 6 hours later) spontaneous recovery occurred the following day and a year later (Schiller et al Ref 4).   It might be thought that the deconditioning process would itself establish a reconsolidation window, but this does not appear to be the case. The conclusion is that the original fear memory has been changed.

In later experiments, Elizabeth Loftus attempted to create completely false memories in 24 individuals aged 18 to 53. The subjects were given a booklet containing three one-paragraph accounts of events in their childhood as recounted by a parent or older sibling. Into the booklet was inserted a plausible but false event that the subject had been lost in a shopping mall for an extended period and had been comforted by an elderly woman before finally being reunited with the family. The subjects were asked what they remembered about each event. About two thirds of the factual events were recalled immediately on reading the accounts and a quarter of the subjects partially or fully ‘remembered’ the false event (p < 1%). “Statistically, there were some differences between the true memories and the false ones: participants used more words to describe true memories and they rated the true memories as somewhat more clear. But if an onlooker were to observe many of our participants describe an event, it would be difficult indeed to tell whether the account was a true or false memory.” (Loftus Ref 5)
As far as I know no attempt has been made to establish any personality or character differences between the people who did not ‘get lost in the mall’ and those who did. The former outnumber the latter by a factor of 3 to 1. Personality may be a factor but it seems that the more trusted the source of the false information the more likely that a false memory is implanted. For instance, a contrived photograph of a childhood flight in a hot-air balloon gave rise to a false memory of such an event in 50% of 20 subjects aged 18 to 28 (Wade et al Ref 6).

In the last decade there have been several attempts to distinguish true memories from false ones, using EEG, PET and MRI but although group differences have been found there is no reason yet to modify Loftus’ 1997 conclusion: “Without corroboration, there is little that can be done to help even the most experienced evaluator to differentiate true memories from ones that were suggestively planted.”

There is every reason to be cautious about first person reports, particularly with reports of satanic and sexual abuse ‘just remembered’, but if it were possible to dispense with memory all together, much more is at risk than mere reminiscence. Indeed, science itself would collapse.

There are some memories that are particularly vivid – a so called ‘flash bulb memory’. This is where particularly surprising and emotional events are apparently etched into our memories, such as when you first heard that John F Kennedy was assassinated (if you are that old); Princess Diana had died; the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York had collapsed and so on. These mentioned ones are of international importance but such memories are not necessarily so e.g. a rape or when you heard of the death of a close relative for instance. But are these memories as accurate and as detailed as we think?

I remember being in a cinema watching a Japanese film ‘Close to Life’ by the Japanese director Kurasawa when the lights went up and the cinema manager came in to say that Kennedy had been assassinated. I only know the name of the film now because I identified it from the plot some years later. I remember that one of my two friends there with me immediately left. I do remember their names. The lights went down and the film continued. I can see the manager now, but not in any photographic detail. I could not say at what point in the film the interruption came, nor what I or my friends were wearing at the time. In my mental image picture there is nothing much to distinguish this cinema from any other though I have the impression of a number of rows with a certain width in front and behind me, but I could not count them. Although I knew the cinema manager at the time I do not remember his name nor could I say with any certainty what he was wearing. Such memories do not appear to be as accurate as we think they are.

Psychologists Neisser and Harsch (Ref 7) interviewed 106 college students less than 24 hours after the Challenger disaster and then again after 2½ years. The later recollections were much less detailed than the original. Neisser thinks that the persistence of the memories and their clarity is due to the frequent consideration the memories receive after the event, rather than to the original impact. The flash bulb events are the link between our own personal life stories and the life stories of our friends and acquaintances; or as Neisser puts it, “with ‘history'”. Flash bulb memories are prone to confusions and omissions and insertion of people who were not there.

People who survive traumatic events sometimes develop the condition known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Sometimes the condition arises a considerable time after the traumatic event. PTSD entails such things as disturbing and recurring flashbacks, avoidance of reminders of the event, and high levels of anxiety. Surely these kinds of memory are more reliable? In a 1990’s study 59 Gulf War veterans were asked about their war experiences a month after return and again 2 years later. (Southwick et al Ref 8) 70% recalled at least one traumatic event after 2 years that they had not mentioned before. This does not necessarily mean they were confabulated, but those recounting the most ‘new’ memories also reported the most PTSD symptoms. This suggests to some that the vets were attributing symptoms of depression and anxiety to a memory given new significance or even unconsciously fabricated.

Victims of rape and other traumas are often offered psychotherapy (ie counselling and talking cures). There are somewhere between 400 and 800 different brands of ‘psychotherapy’ depending to which list you refer, and some are of a bizarre nature and dubious efficacy. That there are so many versions is testimony to the lack of good theory based on evidence. Some of these have extensive training periods and/or accreditation procedures and/or are backed by some academic background and/or are government sanctioned and/or are heavily promoted. However, the sometime recommendation that psychotherapies be licensed and validated by the government has little going for it. In view of the wide definition of psychotherapy [HH Strupp defines psychotherapy as “the systematic use of a human relationship to effect enduring changes in a person’s cognition, feelings and behaviour.” (Ref 9) ] it is difficult to separate ‘psychotherapy’ from those social interactions which the government currently has, and should have, no business in. See Dawes (Ref 10) for the American experience with licensing of psychologists from the point of view of a professor of psychology. The usual rationale for such licensing is that the public should be protected from charlatans, and quality assurance of the techniques. According to Dawes, licensing is more oriented to protecting the status and income of practitioners and does little to protect the public, rather it sanctions the practice of dubious procedures such as alien abduction ‘therapy’, the application of invalid diagnostic tests such as the Rorschach and the public recognition of being an ‘expert witness’ in court.

Psychoanalytically-oriented therapists think that the reason an incident apparently causing PTSD was not a problem for a period of time was because the individual repressed the memory (pushed it into his or her ‘unconscious mind’) and was unable to recall it. The repression is expressed in unhealthy emotions and behaviour. When the memory is recovered the individual is restored to ‘health’. This idea gave rise to ‘recovered memory therapy’ in which therapists sought to uncover repressed memories of traumas of all kinds. Memories of ‘sexual abuse’, ‘satanic rites’, ‘ritual murders’ not to mention ‘alien abductions’ were recovered in the 1980’s and 1990’s which owed more to the imagination of the therapists than the experiences of the individuals. A number of high-profile court cases where fathers were wrongfully imprisoned for sexual abuse of their daughters based on memories ‘recovered’ by hypnosis and suggestion, tempered the courts with caution at least for a while, if not the therapists.

Furthermore those who were subjected to therapy of this kind were evidently more upset afterwards than they were before and the therapists may well have actually created the PTSD they were trying to prevent. See (McNally Ref 11) for some accounts of these false memory cases. One of the more interesting (for outsiders) was the case of a man whose daughters recovered ‘memories’ of him having abused them. In an “intensive quasi-hypnotic interrogation” of this man he recovered memories of having raped his own children repeatedly, having led a satanic cult for nearly 20 years and been involved in the sacrificial murder of hundreds of babies. He confessed to the crimes and was jailed despite there being no evidence of missing babies or bodies or a satanic cult. Evidently patients who recover memories of ritual abuse often develop PTSD during the course of therapy – rates have ranged from 28% to 100%. Survivors of ‘recovered memory therapy’ seem to be intent on revenge against their alleged abusers. The problem with ‘recovered memory therapy’ was that the ‘memories’ were false.

It is not just ‘psychotherapists’ who can instil false memories. Leading questions by social workers, and police can contaminate and corrupt children’s (and adult’s) memories. This evidently occurred in the notorious cases of sexual abuse ‘epidemics’ in Scotland in 1991 (BBC News Ref 12) and in England in 1987 (Pragnell Ref 13)
Not all psychological investigation of memory is negative in the sense that it throws doubt on the validity of memory. But care has to be taken not to make inadvertent suggestions. Based on the challenges mentioned above, Geiselman and Fisher (Ref 14), developed a means of improving the validity of recall, for example in forensic investigations, called the ‘cognitive interview’. This technique is based on the idea that a memory consists of many different elements and that the more context that can be recalled or reinstated the more reliable the recall is likely to be. (Evidently, this is the factual basis of the old Hollywood joke in which a person can only recall certain information when he is drunk. One experiment with deep-sea divers asked them to recall a list of words given to them either under water or on land. This showed that words given underwater were best recalled under water and words given on land were best recalled on land.) Secondly, memory can be retrieved in several ways, so what is not retrieved by one means may be retrieved in another. The technique includes four instructions that interviewers could use to get more reliable accounts from witnesses:

  • (1) try to picture in your mind the circumstances that surrounded the crime event including what the environment looked like, and also think about your feelings and reactions to the event.
  • (2) Report everything that you can remember; do not leave anything out of your description, even things you may consider unimportant.
  • (3) Report the events in different orders: forward, backward, or starting from the middle.
  • (4) Try to recall the different perspectives you may have had during the event or think about what some other prominent person at the event would have seen.

In addition to these general instructions, the cognitive interview also contains specific prompts to facilitate recall of particular kinds of information… (eg ‘Did he remind you of anyone you know? If so, why?’… ‘Was there anything unusual about the voice? What were your reactions to what was said?’)”. Evidently in laboratory experiments this technique produced 25%-30% more facts than standard interviews without increasing the number of false details and it may decrease the contaminating effect of misleading post-event information. Field studies with police interviewers trained in the technique showed a 47% increase in information gleaned.

Now that police interviews are routinely videoed and the videos shown to the jury, the jury should be able to assess to what degree the interrogation was in line with the cognitive interview technique. Unfortunately juries can only judge cases on the evidence before them and unless evidence such as that discussed here is presented to them the average juror will be ignorant of it.

It is not sufficient to accept an allegation of rape or sexual abuse without obtaining such information as time and place, details of how the offence was perpetrated in all the embarrassing details, the size and shape of the offender’s member, and so on. Is the account consistent from telling to telling or does it show evidence of successive ‘embroidery’?

The difficulty of assessing the truth of a ‘recalled event’ by witnesses has given rise to the idea that lies can be detected by physiological measurements as used in the ‘lie detector’ or ‘polygraph’. The theory behind the polygraph is that a deceptive answer to a pertinent question causes an emotional response such as fear of detection or heightened arousal which shows up in the physiological recordings. Although the result of a polygraph test appears to be a purely physiological measurement, in fact the result is a product of the examinee’s motivation, the interrogation technique and the interpretation of the physiological measurements, as well as the physiological effects themselves [Orne et al Ref 15].   Accordingly polygraph operators generally demonstrate to the subject how the polygraph can detect emotional responses and instil a belief that the polygraph can detect lies. Faced with an infallible witness such as this many interviewees confess, believing resistance is useless. On the other hand accused persons sometimes volunteer for polygraph tests believing their innocence can be proved by their physiological responses. Physiological responses to the various questions can vary according to whether the examiner is friendly or aggressive, and whether the examiner is acting for the prosecution or the defence. Sometimes the examiner concludes that the subject is deceptive because of suspected “counter-measures” during the session. The subject’s psychological profile such as his attitude to lying or his considerations concerning the alleged offences must be pertinent. The result of a polygraph examination thus depends on a number of factors apart from the actual physiological responses. Results are therefore difficult to replicate. Scientific opinion on the accuracy of the polygraph in detecting lies is generally unenthusiastic [Fienberg et al Ref 16]. There is no direct causative chain that leads from lying to the physiological responses. The physiological responses can be caused by other factors than lying and it is therefore impossible to decide on the basis of the physiological response that a lie has occurred.

In most cases there is no independent measure of deception therefore the incidence of false positives and false negatives cannot be ascertained. In one experiment a number of students were given information on a forthcoming test. When wired up to what they believed were lie-detectors that were in fact dummies, 13 out of 20 confessed to receiving the information, whereas only 1 in 20 confessed when not wired up[Quigley-Fernandez & Tedeschi Ref 17]. Therefore even spectacular true positives do not prove the effectiveness of polygraph testing per se. Also, false confessions do occur [Meyer & Youngjohn Ref 18].  A confession by a naïve subject is no doubt counted as a success for the polygraph, but this success does not automatically carry over into the case where a more sophisticated and possibly trained subject deliberately wants to evade detection. Polygraph evidence is not admissible in UK criminal courts.

The perceived infallibility of technology is carried over even more convincingly into brain scanning techniques, so-called ‘brain fingerprinting’. In this technique the subject is hooked up to an EEG (electroencephalograph) that records electrical potentials in the scalp. The particular potential that is considered significant is a positive potential that occurs roughly 300 milliseconds after a stimulus that the subject recognises. This P300 potential is thought to occur where the subject recognises the stimulus as familiar or meaningful, but not otherwise. Thus a number of pictures, phrases or words, including some relevant to the enquiry, are shown to the subject and the P300 potential looked for. Thus when a P300 response occurs on a picture of (say) the murder weapon when the subject would otherwise have no knowledge that this was the case, this could be taken by a jury as an indication of guilt. But brain fingerprinting only reveals what information is stored in the subject’s brain. It does not show how or why the information got there [Farwell Ref 19]. Therefore the selection of the various phrases and pictures is critical. The degree to which such memory traces are reliably indicated under the conditions where memory is subject to the seven sins mentioned above requires investigation. According to Farwell, no questions are asked or statements made during the test, so it is not in any sense detecting ‘lies’. In the case of an alleged rape, the intent of the parties, which may be the vital piece of evidence, is not revealed. Brain fingerprinting has therefore limitations, and is only one more piece of evidence to be weighed by the jury, if indeed such evidence is produced and admissible. The method of producing such evidence must also be subject to scrutiny to prevent abuse and even ‘fitting up’. In addition the reliability of brain fingerprinting has been seriously questioned [Rosenfeld Ref 20].

As far as I know no brain fingerprinting evidence has been produced in a British court and is not likely to do so in the near future. There are also ethical considerations in the use of such techniques, for example: does an individual have a right to their own thoughts? Under what circumstances should such a right be waived? What level of certainty is required for a person’s statement is to be classified as a lie based on the output of a machine?

At this time of writing a prominent case of alleged rapes and sexual assaults by a celebrity has been resolved with a ‘not guilty’ verdict. There was a high cost to the tax payer of this and other trials, not to mention the stress to the accused, the witnesses and their families. The onus is therefore on the Crown Prosecution Service to make sure there is a reasonable chance of conviction. It should never be the case that every prosecution brought by the CPS should result in a guilty verdict. However it is up to the CPS to vet the police evidence and assess the reliability of witnesses. There are standard psychological techniques to measure to what degree a witness is suggestible or indeed fantasy prone [Gudjonnson Ref 21]. The main use of this kind of evidence in court has been in assessing whether a confession by a defendant was the result of suggestion and coercion. Such evidence has resulted in the reversal of ‘guilty’ verdicts in several high-profile cases. It would be too much to suggest that all witnesses be subjected to such tests, but in the case of historical abuse cases with little or no evidence beyond the witness testimony, the CPS should consider using the tests to assess the reliability of witnesses. If the main prosecution witness proves reliable when subject to such tests, the CPS would strengthen their case. In the contrary eventuality, the CPS would save a great deal of tax payers’ money and not lose face by bringing a weak case.

What do you think?




[Ref 1] Schacter D L (1999) The seven sins of memory: Insights from psychology and cognitive neuroscience American Psychologist vol 54 p182-203
[Ref 2] Hall DF, McFeaters SJ & Loftus EF (1987) Alterations in Recollection of Unusual and Unexpected Events Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol 1 (1) p3-10 available at
[Ref 3] Loftus EF & Palmer JC (1974) Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour vol 13 p585-589
[Ref 4] Schiller D, Monfils M-H, Raio C, Johnson DC, LeDoux JE & Phelps EA (2010) Preventing the return of fear in humans using reconsolidation update mechanisms. Nature vol 463 (8637) p49-53
[Ref 5] Loftus EF (1997) Creating False Memories Scientific American vol 277 no 3 p70-75 available at
[Ref 6] Wade KA, Garry M, Read JD & Lindsay DS (2002) A picture is worth a thousand lies. PsychonomicBulletin and Review vol 9 p597–603 available at
[Ref 7] Neisser U & Harsch N (1992) Phantom Flashbulbs: false recollections of hearing the news about Challenger in Winograd E & Neisser U (eds) Affect and Accuracy in Recall: studies in Flashbulb memories Cambridge p9-31
[Ref 8] Southwick SM, Morgan CA, Nicolaou AL & Charney DS (1997) Consistency of memory for combat related traumatic events in veterans of Operation Desert Storm American Journal of Psychiatry vol 154 p173-177 abstract available at
[Ref 9] Strupp HH (1986) The non-specific hypothesis of therapeutic effectiveness: a current assessment American Journal of Orthopsychiatry vol 56 (4) p513-520
[Ref 10] Dawes, RM (1994) House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth New York: The Free Press p133-177
[Ref 11] McNally RJ (2003) Remembering Trauma Belknap Press chapter 8 p240-246
[Ref 12] BBC News (1991) “1991: Orkney ‘abuse’ children go home”. On This Day 4 April 1991. available at
[Ref 13] Pragnell C (2002) The Cleveland Child Sexual Abuse Scandal: An Abuse and Misuse of Professional Power available at
[Ref 14] Geiselman RE & Fisher RP (1988) The Cognitive Interview: An Innovative Technique for questioning witness of crime Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology vol 4 (2) p2-5
[Ref 15] Orne MT, Thakray RI & Paskewitz DA (1972) On the detection of deception: A model for the study of physiological effects of psychological stimuli in Greenfield NS & Sternbach RA (eds) Handbook of Psychophysiology New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston
[Ref 16] Fienberg SE, Blascovich JJ, Cacioppo JT, Davidson RJ, Ekman P, Faigman DL, Grambsch PL, Imrey PB, Keeler EB, Laskey KB, McCutchen SR, Murphy KR, Raichle ME, Shiffrin RM, Slavkovic A & Stern PC (2003) The Polygraph and Lie detection National Academies Press p288
[Ref 17] Quigley-Fernandez B and Tedeschi JT (1978) The bogus pipeline as lie detector: Two validity studies Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36 p247-256
[Ref 18] Meyer RG & Youngjohn JB (1991) Effects of feedback and validity expectancy on responses in a lie detector interview Forensic Reports 4 p235-244
[Ref 19] Farwell LA (2004) PBS Innovation Series – Brain Fingerprinting: Ask the Experts available at
[Ref 20] Rosenfeld JP (2005) Brain Fingerprinting: A Critical Analysis The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice vol 4 no 1
[Ref 21] Gudjonsson GH (1984) Interrogative Suggestibility: Comparison between ‘False Confessors’ and ‘Deniers’ in Criminal Trials. Med Science Law vol 24 no 1 p56-60 available at