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False Memories

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

A lot of people have asked about memories they have and how they know if the memories are even real. It’s a pretty common issue, as often there is no evidence or corroboration of the abuse years after the fact. It’s extremely common for survivors to doubt their own memories, because often thinking of them as “fake” feels safer to our brains than acknowledging that we live in a world with abusers where bad things can happen to good people. That is natural and normal, and just because you’re concerned a memory might be fake doesn’t mean it is.

Concerns over the truth of a memory often come up when a person who has no recollection of abuse suddenly “uncovers” memories years later, and is left wondering if it actually happened. In those situations, it is often impossible to ever truly know (unless there were witnesses, a confession, or some other kind of evidence). Some people do uncover legitimate memories years later that they completely didn’t remember before. But some people also have false memories that surface and feel very real, even though the events never happened. There is likely no way for you to ever know for sure.

Either way, it doesn’t mean you’re faking anything. It doesn’t mean you faked a memory or faked your trauma. If you were faking it, you’d know you were faking. You do not fake things by accident, that’s not how it works. It’s possible to have flashbacks of things that never happened, because something caused your brain to store a story as a real memory. It isn’t your fault and doesn’t mean you’re faking it.

Brains make things up for all sorts of reasons. There is always some kind of reason - brains do not generally just randomly make stuff up. But the thing that resulted in the memory being formed that way could have been a lot of different things other than abuse or assault happening directly to you. The way memories are constructed isn’t foolproof and isn’t even particularly reliable. This is especially true of memories that have been accessed/thought about a lot. They can sometimes change drastically over time and be remembered differently each time. It’s possible to accidentally recall a dream as if it’s a real memory. Memories that seem really bizarre, don’t fit the context of real life, or just feel ‘off’ could definitely have been dreams that were misremembered as memories. It’s also possible to combine elements of a very real memory with non-real elements. Our brains sometimes fill in the blanks between the parts we actually remember. It is possible to combine things you’ve heard, watched, or read about with real-life people or events. For example, if you watch a movie with graphic assault scene while still a child, the real fear/discomfort of watching something you’re not old enough to understand, the fictional scenario, and the real-life people who are around can all be stored together as a memory, leading to inaccurate memories of assault. That’s why hypnosis and therapy are so dangerous if performed by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing and isn’t careful. Memories are fairly fragile and can be disrupted or changed. It’s entirely possible for someone to accidentally (or intentionally) mess up your memories.

When this happens and you remember things that didn’t actually happen in real life as if they were real, your brain reacts to those memories with the same kind of trauma you would have as if it had happened. Once the memory-storage part of your brain is no longer able to tell that it didn’t actually happen, then the rest of you will experience whatever trauma response that creates. That is real trauma, for which you deserve compassion and support. Trauma doesn’t come from events, it comes from your lived experience of those events. If your brain has that experience, then you will develop trauma. You deserve real compassion and support for your real trauma whether your trauma came from something that happened to you, or something that got messed up in your memories.

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07 nov. 2021

Hello! I wanted to say thanks for this article. I have memories from elementary school about being assaulted by a teacher, and I was only able to remember anything about elementary school in general a few months ago. I've been told so many times (from the school themselves, therapists, mental hospitals, and doctors) that I was making it up and needed to get over myself, even though the effects left on me are very real, and I'm starting to think that they're right. This article makes me feel a lot better, and that even if the memories are false, the trauma is still real. Thank you. (Sorry if this is kind of incomprehensible, I'm not the best at writing.)

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