The harm that comes from child abuse is built around destructive memories. After all, once an event is over and the physical wounds heal (if there were any to begin with) any lasting impressions formed can only be made through belief and memory.
What we believe about what others tell us, and how we perceive an experience, plays an important part in child abuse, as discussed in the last few chapters. Yet even one’s very memory of an event is altered by these influences, making it so our thoughts about something create the very “reality” we think we experienced.
Types of Memory
There are two principal types of memory, defined by psychologists as implicit and explicit memory:
Explicit memories, which are memories loaded with specific details, don't start to form until sometime between two-and-a-half to three years of age. For example, the time we were at the park and a big dog came up and started digging into the picnic basket, or the day at the beach when a big wave knocked me down and somehow ripped my swimsuit top off. These are examples of explicit memory. They contain details about specific events, with specific people, at specific times and places.
Implicit Childhood Memories
Implicit memory, however, begins to form from birth. Two babies are crying. One baby is picked up by its mother and cuddled and comforted. The other baby has a mother who is frustrated, stressed, and short on patience. He is met with harsh tones, an angry face, and rough and detached treatment. Neither baby would have any specific (explicit) memories of what happened. But if such a scene played out regularly enough, each would retain implicit memories that would form their brain’s general operating system.
Implicit memories are those which are etched into the metaprograms of our mind. They are reactions or interpretations memorized through experience and repetition, though we don't know exactly where they came from. For instance, when we see a chair, we know that chairs are to sit on, though we haven’t a clue about exactly when we learned that. When you feel hurt, you might first reach out to your mother, or to father, or to a sister or grandmother, depending on your implicit memory of who provides the most comfort.
Inaccuracy of Memory
Most of us trust that our memories are factual, fair, and accurate. They are none of the above. There are many factual inaccuracies and gaps in people’s memories. (Azar, 1997; Brewin, Andrews & Gotlib, 1993) All people, and children especially, can even be coached or subliminally persuaded into believing things that never occurred. (Ceci & Bruck, 1993a; Loftus, 1997; Quinn, White & Santilli, 1989; Johnson & Reye, 1981) For instance, in one study Wasington University researcher Elizabeth F. Loftus was able to persuade one in four adults into believing false memories of being lost in the shopping mall as children and then being rescued by a kindly old stranger. Some even continued to insist the event had happened after the ruse was exposed. (Loftus, 1997) Mountains of other research has confirmed that false memories such as this are common. So how is it that our recollections betray us so?
To start with, memory is a slave to suggestive influence. The slightest hint or suggestion can skew a memory or create a new one, even for something recently experienced. For instance, in one study researchers showed volunteers a series of slides showing a red car as it cruises towards a yield sign, turns right, and knocks over a pedestrian. Volunteers were then divided up into two groups. One group was asked this question: "Did another car pass the red car while it was stopped at the stop sign?" The other group wasn't asked any questions at all. Both groups were then shown two sets of pictures; one where the car was approaching a stop sign, the other of the car approaching a yield sign. Each person was asked which was the scene they just saw. More than 90 percent of those who weren't asked any questions answered correctly. But among those who were asked that one seemingly innocent question, 80 percent got it wrong, pointing to the picture of the car approaching the stop sign as opposed to the yield sign – a complete 180 shift in accuracy. (Loftus, Miller & Burns, 1978) The simple act of asking a question about what they saw overwrote their memory of what they actually experienced. The same is true when we tell another about our experiences. If a person is given an experience and then told to tell someone else about that experience, the brain works in subtle changes. They will remember not what they actually experienced, but what they said about what they experienced. (Schooler & Engstier-Schooler, 1990) It's impossible to discuss or recall a memory without changing it, whether in large ways or more subtle ones.
The human brain does not retrieve experience, it reweaves experience. As Goleman (2006, p. 209) points out, "Whenever we retrieve a memory, the brain rewrites it a bit." With each recollection, information is added, subtracted, and changed. If a simple question could change what people remember seeing just 5 minutes ago, imagine how corrupted our memories can become over the course of time. More humbling yet, the previous example was nothing but an innocent question. When we are subject to suggestive influences that are far more powerful, our memories become far more distorted. This suggestive influence doesn't have to be sinister or intentional, it is present in every interaction or verbal exchange humans engage in. The more emotional the exchange, the more suggestive the influence can be.