Dr. Jonathan Schooler describes how the brain's susceptibility to false memories can make it difficult for people to distinguish actual from imagined experiences.
Discovered memory refers to situations in which people believe they have suddenly remembered a long-forgotten memory. These memories may be of any event, although abuse is a frequent example. Often trauma such as abuse is repressed. One of the difficult things about the controversy surrounding discovered memory versus false memory is the similarity between authentic memories and suggested ones.
In my own research, we have actually planted false memories of relatively mundane things, stop signs that people hadn't seen, for example, and then asked them to describe them. What was striking was that the descriptions of the planted memories were almost as detailed as the descriptions of the real memories.
Of course, not all false memories are planted. Sometimes individuals impose new meaning on an experience. They originally had an experience that made them uncomfortable, and now they associate their discomfort with something worse than what actually happened. Or, they now think about elements in the experience in a different way and the narrative changes.
We have found that people can hold false memories with virtually as much confidence as real memories. So it may well be that the way the brain represents false memories is, unfortunately, far too close to the way that it represents the real thing. What discovered memory really emphasizes is that people have a profound sense of discovery of something about their past that they genuinely believe they didn't know before.
It's crucial, therefore, to have a careful system for corroborating, or discerning between authentic discovered memories and false memories. In the case of abuse, the three key things to determine are whether or not the abuse actually occurred, whether or not the abuse had been completely forgotten, and whether or not the individual genuinely believes that the memory had been entirely forgotten and now suddenly remembered.