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Shevrin, H. (1994). The Uses and Abuses of Memory. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 42:991-996.

(1994). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 42:991-996

The Uses and Abuses of Memory

Howard Shevrin, Ph.D.

IT IS OFTEN THE CASE that the most commonplace phenomena pose the most difficult scientific challenges, but if these challenges can be met, they surprisingly open the way for the most far-reaching scientific discoveries. What could be more commonplace than the fact that objects fall down when dropped, or that we all dream? Yet the former led to our understanding of what holds the universe together, and the latter to a profoundly new understanding of the unconscious depths of the mind. Similarly, we all remember, misremember, and fail to remember many times a day. We also act most of the time as if we know when we are really remembering and when we are fantasizing. Moreover, we apply the same judgment to what others tell us, deciding if they are "telling the truth," selectively recalling, lying, or simply making things up. Life with others (and with ourselves) would be impossible if we failed to make such judgments and, most important, if were we not right a good deal of the time, the foundations of human intercourse would be undermined. In Orwell's 1984 just this kind of undermining is imagined when the state takes control of communal memory, or as we usually call it—history.

When we confront the questions of what is real and what imagined, we learn from the two articles on memory in this issue how hard it is to arrive at plausibly convincing criteria for distinguishing memories of real events from fantasies and even inventions. Ironically, the newspapers and TV talk shows are choked with accounts of presumed memories of sexual abuse astonishingly retrieved in the course of therapy; law courts are now becoming consulting rooms in which it is decided what is remembered and who is guilty as a result of these revelations.

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